Hone “Strategic Patience,” Watch Your Creativity Spike

An art history professor makes her students sit in front of a painting for three hours. P&G invents the Swiffer. Those events are more alike than you might think.

Hone “Strategic Patience,” Watch Your Creativity Spike

Deep patience. Close attention. These are not virtues often associated with college students (or some tech workers, for that matter). But as Harvard art history professor Jennifer L. Roberts recently explained, the skills for finding the “details, relationships, and orders that take time to see” can be introduced.


She calls it “decelerating education,” like when, for an intense research paper about a single work of art, she prompted her pupils to plop down in front of a painting for three hours, giving them a stillness they don’t usually get in a multi-tabbed way of life.

“(It’s) designed to seem excessive,” she says, but students end up “astonished by what they have been able to see.”

Is seeing “instantaneous apprehension”?

We click through articles and know what they say in 20 seconds, we leaf through books, we Insta our way through grams. But seeing longer can mean seeing more: Roberts, an American studies scholar, uses John Singleton Copley’s 1765 painting Boy with a Squirrel as a case study:

John Singleton Copley, Boy with a Squirrel

After she spent an hour with the painting, she says, details began to reveal themselves, like about the shape of the boy’s ear or the squirrel’s ruff, the way the boy’s hand was in proportion to the glass of water, how the folds of the curtain fell, how the eye was depicted, and what these varied symbols may mean. Since painting is a slow art, she says, finding its meaning comes from being on that slow end of the temporal spectrum.

Getting to that slow, still, detail-receiving place is a feat of “strategic patience,” “patience engineering,” or, she jokes, “time management”–a point understood by Einstein and P&G.

When deceleration is acceleration:

Smart people have told us about how acute, focused observation births creativity. And we’ve discussed, innovation often begins with observation before moving to addition or subtraction.


Swiffer is an example: When P&G wanted to make new a product for people’s homes, they studied they way we cleaned. After hours of fieldwork, they realized that people were spending as much time cleaning their mops as they used the mops themselves. So they set out to built a quicker mop–and the result of that process may be leaning in your closet right now.

But that innovation didn’t spring from “instantaneous apprehension”: P&G engineered the same patience–and gained the similar benefits in an acute, focused reading–in studying their customers as Roberts practiced in burrowing before a portrait.

Patience, then, is a kind of appreciation: In the same way that a gourmet can savor the flavors of a dish and reverse-engineer its preparation, the patience-practicing, insight-seeking observer becomes familiar with the subject of her study, whether canvases or customers–and in so doing, can begin to know their needs.

Bottom Line: Give yourself some time–and patience–to produce.

Advancing the Science and Art of Teaching

[Hat tip: Annie Murphy Paul]


[Image: Flickr user Phil Roeder]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.