The Most Creative Man in Silicon Valley

Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Michael Ray has taught some of the best-known innovators in Silicon Valley how to be more creative. It's no wonder that both students and executives are clamoring for his lessons.

Sidebar: Hey, I Have an Idea!

On an overcast day in January, in a damp courtyard on the campus of Stanford University, business-school students are kicking their legs, doing cartwheels, and shouting out names. "Charlotte!" bellows a woman in brown pants and a red sweater, as she kicks her legs cancan-style in the air. The woman is part of a large circle, and, one at a time, every other student in that circle also shouts, "Charlotte!" and mimics her leg movements. Just moments ago, the students were clicking their heels together in the air and yelling, "Pau!" And before that, they were gripping their hands above their heads, swiveling their hips, and howling, "Jean!"

No, the next generation of the world's business elite hasn't lost its collective mind. These students are engaging in a creativity exercise known as a "lightning circle." In a curriculum filled with lessons on marketing and strategy and finance, one very different course has been thriving at the Stanford Graduate School of Business for the past 21 years. Michael Ray, the course's creator and teacher, speaks without irony about people's "inner child," regularly leads in-class meditation exercises, and requires students to bring colored pencils or crayons to every session-so that they can doodle in their journals. But don't be misled by the offbeat methods of BUS G341 ("Personal Creativity in Business"). Its alumni include some of the best-known figures in Silicon Valley -- such as Jim Collins, author of the best-selling book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (HarperCollins, October 1994) and of "Built to Flip," a recent Fast Company cover story (March 2000) -- many of whom, years after they've graduated from the GSB, still use techniques and guiding principles that they learned in the course to address day-to-day challenges and, sometimes, to make major life decisions.

"The course has changed a lot of lives," says Jeff Skoll, 35, VP of strategic planning at eBay and a 1995 graduate of the GSB. "It teaches people to look inside themselves. And that's a pretty special ability for a professor to teach.

"In the last class of the semester," Skoll continues, "Michael told us to think of something that we wanted to remember, write it down, and put it in our wallet. I wrote, 'Remember what you want to do and that time is limited.' Five years later, I still have that piece of paper in my wallet. It's frayed, and the ink has faded, but the message puts me back on track every time I look at it."

Heidi Roizen, 42, managing director at Softbank Venture Capital LLC and one of Silicon Valley's best-connected entrepreneurs, looks back fondly on her days in Ray's class. "It was fun to go to a class where you would sit quietly in the dark or draw pictures for two hours," says the 1983 GSB graduate. "It was very different from all of my other classes.

"One week," she continues, "we learned how, when you're analyzing a situation, you eventually get to a point at which you ask yourself, 'Is it a yes, or is it a no?' And you just know the answer. There have been so many times in my life when I've found myself overanalyzing an issue, and I've stepped back and said, 'Is it a yes, or is it a no?' I rely on that technique a lot."

Says Bob Moog, 43, chairman and CEO of AreYouGame.com and a 1984 graduate of the business school: "There was a giant delta between the rest of the curriculum and this course. When Michael introduced the course, it wasn't part of a 'normal' mba curriculum-and it still isn't. Yet, if you ask the really successful people in business to list the keys to their success, you'll find that creativity is as important to them as anything else.

"Suspending judgment is something that I learned in class that I use in business today," Moog continues. "Successful people tend to approach situations by relying on past experiences in similar situations. But we live in a world where things are changing so fast that if you rely on what you knew five years ago, you're not going to come up with the best answer today. Instead of doing what they normally do, which is always trying to be fast and efficient, I tell people to slow down. Never go with the first answer. Suspend your judgment: Listen to the whole idea and try to figure out how to make it an even better solution, instead of going back to something that you did previously in a similar situation-because new ideas are better than recycled solutions."

The teacher who imparted these valuable lessons -- and who inspires such affectionate praise-is an affable, gray-haired 61-year-old with a tendency to poke fun at his own verbosity. Michael Ray may have a soft spot for all things New Agey and Californian, but he also has a formidable resume: Trained in social psychology at Northwestern University, Ray is Stanford's first John G. McCoy-Banc One Corp. Professor of Creativity and Innovation, and of Marketing. He is also author or coauthor of nine books, among them Creativity in Business (Doubleday, 1986) and The Path of the Everyday Hero (Penguin Putnam, 1991). Since 1996, he has been a consultant to a slew of high-profile companies, including Charles Schwab, Clorox, and Hewlett-Packard. (See "The Business of Creativity") In 1997, Ray developed software based on his famous course that allows businesspeople -- who rarely have as much time as students do -- to take a virtual version of the course, supplemented by workshops and frequent live coaching sessions. He plans to wind down his full-time teaching role at Stanford in order to concentrate on these beyond-the-classroom endeavors.

For Ray, creativity is not an every-now-and-again exercise -- the search for one great eureka moment. Nor is it about coming up with an incredible idea-the next billion-dollar innovation. For Ray, creativity is a way of life. Forget cookie-cutter brainstorming techniques or tips for better meetings. Underlying Ray's course is a search for answers to two fundamental questions: "Who is my self?" and "What is my work?" You can't know what and how you want to create, he argues, until you know who you are and what you hope to do with your life.

"In order to deal with the chaos that exists in the world today," says Ray, "you need some grounding. That grounding best comes from knowing who you are in a rich sense, so that as things change, you know what your resources are and what you can bring to a situation. That way, you don't have to worry, 'Am I capable of doing this?' You already know the answer.

"The creativity that I'm talking about is different from problem solving," he continues. "It's different from just coming up with ideas. People have enough ideas. The real question is 'Which ideas are you going to use?' You have to look for a different resource. I always go back to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who said that you can't step in the same stream twice. People say that the only constant in the world today is change. What I'm saying is, that's not really true. There's another constant in the world: your own internal creativity. That's always there for you."

The Origin of (Creative) Species

Michael Ray has come up with dozens of ways in which ambitious people can address the tough questions that are at the heart of the creative process. He's been asking those questions of himself for decades.

Ray attended Northwestern University, where he earned four degrees. His final degree was a doctorate in social psychology -- which Ray describes as the study of how people bring their inner psychology into the outside world. Along with his academic pursuits, Ray worked at Foote, Cone & Belding, an advertising agency in Chicago, which prompted the head of the advertising department at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism to offer him a teaching position. While teaching an advertising course to Northwestern undergraduates, Ray stumbled onto a way of discussing creativity that would change his life-and that would change the lives of many of his students.

"I had this idea that I would give a little lecture on the creative process," says Ray. "Somehow, I decided that I would ask students how they came up with ideas. I said, 'Think of a time when you had a great idea.' This one guy, a sophomore, said, 'I had an idea recently. I was taking a course in real estate, which I was really interested in because I thought that it would be a good way to make some money. But it was the dullest course that I'd ever taken. At the same time, I had a new girlfriend, and I was looking for things that we could do together. I had to study for an exam in the real-estate course, and I decided to make my study session into a game to make it more exciting. I asked my girlfriend to help me with the game, which I modeled after Monopoly, because I knew that she liked to play games.'"

As Ray listened to the student's story, an idea formed in his head. "I wish I could remember that guy's name, because he made this thing work," Ray says. "That class was maybe 70 minutes long, and I'd been thinking beforehand that if my creativity lecture wasn't a success, then I would let my students go early. Instead, I was able to start a discussion based on that guy's story and all of the lessons that were embedded in it, because it had so many of the characteristics of how the creative process works. He came up with an idea during a fit of real frustration. He blended things from two different areas, displaying an ability to see unexpected likenesses. He dealt with his problem in a new way."

Ray continued to feel the power of that creative moment as the quarter wore on. "There was such chemistry in that class," he says. "When you have a great idea, it's so exciting to talk about it. There's something about creativity that people recognize, that touches them. And, at a more superficial level, we like to hear about creative people because it lets us know that we can be creative. We get that way about athletes, scientists, even ordinary people who have done something heroic-because it's great stuff to hear."

Leading an entire course on creativity at Stanford, however, would be more daunting than delivering a single lecture on the subject, and when Ray arrived at the gsb in 1967, it was not to teach the creativity principles that have since become his trademark. Instead, it was to teach a course called "The Management of Marketing Communication." It was not until several years later, when he found himself at a personal crossroads, that Ray reconsidered his professional priorities.

In 1971, he and his wife (with whom he had five children) divorced. It was a period of mixed feelings for Ray. "In many ways, it was a very successful time in my life," he remembers. "As a visiting professor, I carried out a lot of research at Harvard, and in 1974, I was made a full professor at Stanford. But at the same time, I was living in a little apartment, and I was on the edge of depression."

He embarked on a kind of spiritual quest, undergoing therapy, studying various theories on family and love, and delving into meditation. In September 1977, he traveled to Australia. "I invited a woman to go with me," he says, "but she didn't want to go. That was a blessing. It was the first time that I took an extensive trip by myself. Being alone gave me a lot of time to think about things, and to read and meditate. Because I didn't have a traveling companion, I met lots of people. I had some wonderful experiences." Upon his return from Australia, Ray gelled his experiences and ideas into a personal mandate: He wanted to teach a creativity course at Stanford. "I had experienced a sort of awakening," he says. "I realized that I wanted to do something else with my life, because advertising and marketing were no longer fulfilling. I thought about how incredibly alive I felt when I was being creative, and I wanted to share that feeling with other people."

To design a creativity course, Ray teamed up with Rochelle Myers, an art therapist whom he'd met in a class during his spiritual odyssey and the colleague with whom he would later write the groundbreaking book Creativity in Business. "In many ways, we didn't know what we were doing," says Ray. "But we did know that we wanted to get to a profound level of creativity, a level of creativity that would leverage everything else that our students were doing. We put together a proposal that talked about dealing with ambiguous situations and with the creativity that's within people. In a sense, the concept sounded kind of spacey, but I added something about the business side of it to the course description and gave it to the associate dean, who at that time was an accounting professor. And, lo and behold, he really liked the idea."

Students liked it, too, especially the insights that it provided on a subject rarely mentioned in their other courses, focused as those classes were on the "hard" side of business-numbers, algorithms, decision-making rules. In Ray's course, students don't just read sanitized case studies of success. They can actually ask successful businesspeople about the role that creativity has played in their careers. Past speakers have included Steve Jobs, Phil Knight, and Tom Peters, as well as a triathlete and a dream analyst. The speakers are often both informal and personal, opening up about issues that students are struggling with, such as maintaining work-life balance and cultivating purpose.

In the early years of the course, some students (even those who were fans) expressed incredulity that a class called "Personal Creativity in Business" existed at the GSB. Recalls Ray: "They were telling me, 'If the deans knew what you were doing in this course, you'd be out of here so fast.'"

In fact, Ray had tenure -- so his concerns had less to do with his own fate than with the fate of the course. "We have a mechanism here that's called the 'one-year rule,'" he says. "You can teach a course for one year without full faculty approval, which creates a lot of innovation in the curriculum." But after a year, the course has to go through an approval process. When his course came up for approval, Ray was filled with dread. To his surprise, it was approved unanimously, without even a discussion. Ray was free to forget about politics -- and to focus on teaching.

The Creative Curriculum

Since 1979, the details of "Personal Creativity in Business" have been altered from time to time -- what's a course on creativity without a bit of internal tweaking? -- but the core themes remain the same. At the course's foundation is Ray's conviction that creativity exists within everyone. When people can't tap into their creativity, Ray argues, that doesn't mean that it's not there; it's just being suppressed by what he calls the "voice of judgment," or VOJ -- that pesky internal self-esteem destroyer, heavily inßuenced by both society and parents, that says you can't, you shouldn't, and you're going to look stupid if you try.

"There was an exercise that Michael had us do to silence our voice of judgment," remembers Michelle Barmazel, 33, a management consultant at McKinsey & Co. who specializes in e-commerce for financial institutions and a member of the Stanford B-school class of 1994. "He told us to write a negative trait, something that we wanted to get rid of, on a little piece of paper. Then he lit a candle in the middle of the room, and one by one, we went up and dropped our papers into the ßame-to burn our negative traits. It was a very powerful exercise."

Negativity, Ray says, is the enemy of true creativity. "The creativity that we're going for in the course is enormous," he says. "It's like the experience you have when you make a perfect shot in a tennis match or say just the right thing in a meeting or make just the right move in a relationship. That experience tells you that there's something really great inside of you-that you're somebody who can hit that perfect shot, and that you can probably hit it all the time. Creativity is feeling that you're making a contribution all the time and feeling totally absorbed by what you're doing. The great Boston Celtics star Bill Russell wrote in his autobiography that there were certain times when he would be so into a game that he could be spitting up blood and not even care. In those games, he would know where people were going to be before they got there, and he wouldn't even have to think about what to do. Sports psychologists call that mentality being 'in the zone.'"

According to Ray, we all have at least one "singular recognition experience" during childhood or adolescence -- but our VOJ covers up the positive feelings that the experience leaves behind. Ray's own such experience occurred when he was nine years old and spending the summer with his family at their lakeside cottage in Wisconsin. "One day," he says, "I was walking down a gravel path that led to the beach. It was a beautiful, sunny day. I didn't have anything in particular on my mind, and I suddenly got this sense that I was as big as the whole scene around me-that I had all kinds of power, all kinds of potential, to do whatever I wanted to do. It was a very full feeling. But there was also a bit of sadness mixed in with it, because I knew that I would someday die."

Such poignant moments are not at all uncommon, says Ray. When he asks his students at the beginning of each quarter if they've ever had such an experience, about half say that they have. "People know what I'm talking about," he says. (One student recently told Ray that his breakthrough occurred at age 16, when he was swimming across the Seine River in Paris at midnight.) The importance of these memories, says Ray, is that they are a recognition of our "inner creative resource."

For people who have doubts about their inherent creative gifts, Ray suggests a plethora of exercises meant to tease out those talents. His approach to creativity can, ironically, seem like a math problem. There are, he says, five qualities of creativity: intuition, will, joy, strength, and compassion. Those qualities are drawn out of people by four tools -- faith in your own creativity, absence of judgment, precise observation, and penetrating questions-and are meant to aid people in addressing the five challenges that Ray refers to as purpose and career, time and stress, relationships, balance, and finding true prosperity.

That framework allows students to tackle creativity -- a subject often discussed in uncomfortably abstract terms -- in a very real and systematic way. Additionally, at the beginning of the quarter, each student chooses an issue to confront that has been problematic in the past. For example, one recent student said that he considers himself too dependent on the approval of others-and that he fears becoming like an older relative who died professionally successful but personally unhappy. The way that students pinpoint exactly what to focus on is by answering a question: "What is a problem or obstacle that, if solved, would cause an immeasurable change in your life for the better?"

One way to get to the root of such personal stumbling blocks is to use one of the course's aforementioned tools: Ask penetrating questions. "I like to talk about the value of insight questions versus action questions," Ray says. "What I mean by 'action questions' are questions like 'What should I do?' or, even worse, 'What do you think I should do?' When you hear someone ask those kinds of questions, you know that person's not clear about the situation. There is, however, a series of questions that you can ask to get clear -- and once you're clear about the situation, you don't have to ask what to do."

Such 'insight' questions include "What is it that I don't yet understand?," "What is it that I'm really feeling?," and "What is it that I'm not seeing about the situation?" "Sometimes, when people think about these questions, they see that they are stuck in a situation because it gives them certain advantages," Ray says. "They may be miserable in a particular situation, but as long as they stay in it, they don't have to face certain issues. Once they realize that, they begin to see what's really going on."

Ray also recommends an exercise that asks questions that begin with "how come," instead of with "why." Explains Ray: " 'How come' is a little softer. 'Why' can be attacking." In this exercise, each question builds on the response to the previous question. Here's an example: How come you're always late for accounting class? Because I don't like accounting class. How come you don't like accounting class? Because I'm not doing well in it. How come you're not doing well in it? Because my father is an accountant, and I think he's a jerk. "Usually," says Ray, "when you get to the third or fourth level of a question, even if you start with something trivial, you end up with something fairly deep."

In what is perhaps the most distinctive part of the course, Ray's students abide by certain "live-withs" -- rules of thumb that students take from the classroom and apply to their lives. Live-withs vary from week to week, depending on which of the five challenges Ray is teaching in class at the time. For example, when the challenge of the week is "time and stress," the live-with that students are told to abide by is "Don't worry, just do it."

Besides combining the dicta of Bobby McFerrin and Nike, as Ray jokes, this live-with encourages students to simply do the work that they need to do, instead of being tormented by ßoating anxieties, and to record in their journals the results of their efforts. "One of the exercises that I suggest is to have a 'worry time,' " Ray says. "You can worry from, say, 5:30 to 6. And then, when a worry comes up at another time, you can notice it-you can even write it down-but you can't worry about it until your worry time. A lot of people find that when their worry time rolls around, they say, 'Why was I worried about these things?' "

Another live-with, assigned to coincide with the challenge "purpose and career," is "Do what is easy, effortless, and enjoyable." It's a live-with that has stood the test of time for Gary Marenzi, 44, a 1982 graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. "I've really tried to follow it in my life," he says of the live-with. For one thing, it helped him decide on his post-mba career. "I think that a lot of students were saying, 'I just want to make a lot of money' or 'I want to do this because that's what the herd is doing,' " he says. "Then they'd go into jobs that they were ill-suited for, because they hadn't thought out what the ride would be like. In a way, doing what is easy, effortless, and enjoyable is basically a matter of following your heart. But it also asks how you're going to have fun along the way-whom you will interact with, where you will travel, what kind of environment you will be working in. It allows you to focus on the journey as well as on the end result."

For Marenzi, focusing on the journey led him to a career in Hollywood, where he is now president of international television at Paramount Pictures. "I realized that I had a passion for television, for the motion-picture industry, and that I didn't want to work with a boring product," he says. "I'd much rather make less money and be around a product in a stimulating environment. I got into the international side of the business because of the lifestyle that it affords-the travel and the contact with people overseas. Would I have gotten here without Mike's class? Yeah, maybe. But I certainly think that in the boiling cauldron of my second year of business school, when I was trying to make hard-and-fast decisions about what my life was going to be like, the class was a place of peace and serenity. It allowed me to think about what was going on around me and to decide whether it was for me."

These days, Marenzi finds himself passing on to his employees the lessons that he gleaned in "Personal Creativity in Business." Says Marenzi: "I manage around 100 employees. People are always coming up to me all upset about a problem, and I tell them to relax and to think about how it might be solved, to think about its effect on the other people in the department, to think about what the results of various actions might be. I tell them that it's not just the numbers that are important-does it make money or doesn't it make money? It's more, How is it going to affect people? Is this how we want to spend our time as managers or as teammates? Is it going to make us happy?"

Creative For Life

Marenzi's willingness to continue doing his creativity "homework" more than two decades after he finished the course is exactly what Ray hopes will happen with all of his students. "A lot of students are liberated by the live-withs," Ray says. "I tell them, 'Stay with this! You can live the rest of your life this way. Don't think of it as an anomaly.'"

Another way that Ray recommends cultivating personal creativity is by noticing and celebrating it whenever it occurs. That's where journal entries come in -- and why Ray encourages his students to share with the class their experiences dealing with a particular live-with. "I'm suggesting that people notice their creative moments throughout their whole life," he says. "Whenever you're dealing with a situation in a way that's better, you notice it. I tell people, 'Don't just pay attention to something when it happens -- pay attention to it afterward too.' That way, the next time that you're in a similar situation, or in a more difficult situation, you can say, 'Let me try this and see what happens.' It's all about being conscious, about being aware of what's happening to you."

It's a technique that Ray himself uses. "It's no surprise that I'm not fully liberated with all of my creativity," he admits. "One of the issues that I have to work on all the time is that I always tend to dwell on problems. Recently in class, I didn't get to everything that I had wanted to do, and at the end of the class, I was just berating myself. I went home and told my wife, Sarah, that there had been a glitch in class, and she said, 'I don't want to hear about that. Tell me 10 good things that happened today, and then you can tell me about the glitch.' By the time I finished telling her about the 10 good things, I didn't care whether I talked about the glitch. It's that kind of recognition and celebration of creativity that increases the probability that it will happen again."

A large-scale celebration of creativity occurs at the end of the quarter, when students turn in a two-part final project. The first part is a written statement of their self and work, meant to answer the questions that are at the course's center: "Who is my self?" and "What is my work?" The written statement also details how students have come to terms with the problem that they chose to tackle at the start of the quarter. Finally, each student's statement includes a personal myth-a narrative about that student's life and its challenges in which the student, thinly disguised, is the hero of the story. Explains Ray: "A hero might live in the town of Notsob, which is 'Boston' spelled backward. Or students might talk about their family, describing their parents as a king and a queen, and the characters as plants and animals. They tell their story in a very profound way, and what they often find is that by just coming up with an idea and not thinking about it too much, the story starts to write itself. It becomes a way for people to describe what they got out of the course and to figure out what they need to do in the future."

The second part of the final project is a form of creative expression, which the students choose themselves. Over the years, these works have precipitated some of the most moving moments in the class. Although some of them occurred years ago, Ray still becomes emotional when recalling them. One woman composed and recorded a piano piece. She then wrote a poem, which she read accompanied by the recorded music. The poem was about her relationship with her mother-and the woman's experience finding out that her mother was dying. "It was gripping," Ray says. "The music and the poem and everything all together was amazing." Another time, a student performed a dance in which he represented different facets of his personality by the clothes that he was wearing. He started out in a business suit, removing layers of clothing to reveal various outfits throughout the dance. He ended the routine in athletic clothes.

Not all students perform before the class. One woman transformed an unused school closet into a room that symbolized her life: She decorated it with wall hangings, books, and a burning candle, and she played music in the background. "The room provided visitors with a sense of peace and quiet," Ray says. "People would file in one at a time to see it."

Ray does not require students to speak in class, not even on the day that they turn in their final project. "At the beginning of the quarter, I always say that you can go through the course without saying anything if that's what you want to do," he says. "I certainly like it when people participate, but the point of this class is really to work on yourself." Although most students do actively participate, one particularly quiet woman took Ray at his word, even during her final project. "She dressed as a clown and just sat there during the whole class," Ray explains. "Some people asked her if she wanted to do anything, but she didn't. She was almost like a mime. That was her creative expression." It was, incidentally, wholly acceptable to Ray.

Although "Personal Creativity in Business" can seem, at times, like a giant love fest between the professor and his current and former students, the course does have some critics-of a sort. "I thought the course was a waste of time when I was taking it," says Bob Moog. "I considered myself a person who was pretty in touch with his creativity before I took the course, so I was a skeptic throughout the whole thing. I just thought, either you're creative or you're not-you can't teach people to be creative."

Once Moog re-entered the work world, his perspective shifted -- though the shift didn't occur overnight. In 1985, he founded a toy company, University Games Corp. Competing against such giants as Hasbro and Mattel wasn't easy, and Moog was forced to rely on pluck and innovation. "We would call buyers, and they would say that they were too busy to talk to us," he remembers. "At the time, we had a new game called the Batman Game. So we printed up some of those do-not-disturb tags that are hung on hotel doors, and we mailed them to all of our buyers. On one side of the tags, there was a picture of Batman with the words 'Don't disturb me, I'm saving the world.' On the other side, there was a picture of the Joker with a caption that read, 'Diabolical plot in progress, come on in.' A lot of buyers put the tags right on their doors, and we could call their assistants and ask, 'Which side is showing?' Whenever the Joker was showing, we were put right through."

Moog was similarly resourceful in his approach to selling to the public. "We decided that we weren't going to define whom we sold our products to in a traditional way," he says. "Most toy companies sell board games to either toy stores or game stores. We decided to sell our games wherever people who buy games go-airport gift shops, hotel gift shops, gas stations, museums. Nobody had ever sold games in those places before, but we knew that we should, because that's where our customers were going."

It slowly dawned on Moog that perhaps the business-school class that he'd been so skeptical about had helped him after all. "When I was breaking the rules, I wasn't thinking, 'Oh, I learned this from Michael Ray,' " Moog says. "But when I looked back, I asked myself, 'Why did I think of these innovations when nobody else did?' And the answer was, there were things in that course that led me to think in a different way than I had in the past. It probably took five years for me to realize that the course had even inßuenced me at all."

These days, Moog (who, for the record, is a convert to the idea that creativity exists within everyone) is effusive about the course-even about some of its wackiest ideas. He still practices many of the course's live-withs today, including this one: "Think about water."

"It's kind of weird," Moog admits. "I'm not even sure what it means. But I find that if you go someplace where there's water, and then you just stare at the water and think about it, that releases tension. It can be an ocean, it can be a lake, it can be rain, it can even be a glass of water -- there's just something about that ßuidity that's really relaxing. It opens up your mind and allows you to think differently about things."

Before going off to draw a bath, be warned : Another of the course's fundamental assumptions is that creativity is idiosyncratic. That means that the water trick might work for Bob Moog but not for the next person. "Knowing that creativity is idiosyncratic leads to a mass principle," Ray says. "We have many different kinds of exercises-meditation, movement, dance, artwork, music, singing, martial arts. The idea is that for any one of those activities, 90% of the people who try it might not find it useful at all. But for the other 10%, it's a way of tapping creativity."

The idea is not for everything to work; it's for something to work. When it comes to creativity, Ray's goals may be ambitious, but his expectations are much more modest. "The best thing that we can hope for-and I think it does happen-is that people will get on a path of their own," he says.

Sidebar: The Business of Creativity

Michael Ray has discovered that for some companies, inviting him to conduct a workshop on creativity can be a little nerve-racking at first. Ray is a warehouse of research, anecdotes, and exercises that people can use to enhance their creative powers inside companies. So what's the problem? "My course causes poeple to delve into what they really wnat to do in their lives," Ray explains. "At companies, there's often the thought that if people think about what they really want, they'll start leaving in droves."

In fact, Ray reassures his hosts, the opposite is usually true: "People who take the course decide, almost without exception, to stay in their jobs. If you know the answer to the question, 'What is my work?,' you can bring that answer into any job. People often find that where they are is the best place for them to be."

Generally, Ray goes into a company -- past clients include Charles Schwab, Clorox, and Hewlett-Packard -- for three workshops. In between those workshops, employees use software that contains the same material that Ray teaches in his Stanford course. (Additional classes, known as the "open-enrollment program," are offered and usually occur on or near the Stanford campus.)

For many people, the course's candor and contemplation are revelatory. At one fast-growing company, Ray led an exercise in which about 35 top executives within a 600-person division discussed their fears. They each wrote their deepest fear on an index card. (Ray recommended disguising handwriting.) The cards were shuffled and redistributed. People then sat in groups of seven or eight and discussed the fear on their index card as if it were their own.

During this time of transition at the company -- among other things, the head of this particular division was leaving -- many people had the same fear: that they would not be recognized. Remembers Ray: "One person stood up and said, 'Wait a minute! We're the leaders. If we have these fears, what about the other 565 people who work here?' She and the others were able to start addressing their fears by moving toward them."

Curtis Sittenfeld (curtis-sittenfeld@uiowa.edu), a former Fast Company staff writer, is a graduate student in the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. Contact Michael Ray by email (ray_michael@gsb.stanford.edu), or visit him on the Web (www.michael-ray.com).

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