Hey, I Have an Idea!

Creativity is what happens in between thoughts.

Main story: The Most Creative Man in Silicon Valley

For a brief period last winter, my role as a Fast Company writer took me to a place that neither my undergraduate transcript nor my résumé could have taken me: the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Okay, so I was a business-school student for just a few days (I probably won’t hear from the recruiters at Intuit or Goldman Sachs anytime soon). But as a temporary observer in BUS G341, Michael Ray’s “Personal Creativity in Business” course, I was able to experience a class so popular that enrollment is generally limited to second-year students.


The Sweet Sound of Creativity

Class started with Ray playing a tape of a musical collaboration between Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma. “That’s an example of what one can do with one’s inherent gifts,” Ray told me and my 50-plus classmates. Then he attended to a little housekeeping: “Did someone leave these in the last class?” he asked, as he held up an enormous box of crayons — which are actually required material for the course’s various drawing exercises. No one claimed them.

A Look Inside Myself

Next up was meditation. “Close your eyes,” Ray instructed. “Take full yogic breaths. Let your breath breathe. Let your tongue relax.” It occurred to me that I might start drooling. “Creativity is what happens between thoughts, between breaths,” Ray continued. “Don’t worry about doing any of this right. There is no right way.” Someone to my left was jiggling his leg. I opened one eye to look at the offender and then peered around the room — and was embarrassed to find that I was the only peeker in the entire class, including Ray himself.

“Think of a time when you came up with a solution to a problem,” Ray said. We had arrived at the heart of the meditation. Unfortunately, what was going through my head was not a recollection of a triumphant creative moment but — inexplicably, relentlessly, and loudly — the lyrics to the popular Cyndi Lauper song of the 1980s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

I planned to keep this shameful information to myself. However, the next thing I knew, the meditation was over, and we were pairing off to share the details of our creative solution. I let my partner, business student Kathryn Elliott, go first. She described the time that she’d inserted a complicated graphic into a presentation for another class. Then it was my turn. A long pause ensued. At last, I had no choice but to confess to Kathryn that I was unable to remember a time — any time, ever — when I had come up with a solution to a problem.

Ray called the room to order. “Because of this exercise,” he announced, “you’ve admitted to someone else that at least one time in your life, you had a great idea.” I wanted to crawl under my chair.

My inability to recall one single good idea weighed heavily on me. A former staff writer for Fast Company, I’m now a graduate student myself — in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. That means that I’m getting my master’s degree in writing fiction. If I’ve never had a creative thought before in my life, what hope do I have of producing the great American novel?


Driving Toward an Idea

A week after visiting Ray’s class, I made a seven-hour drive alone between Ohio and Iowa, and I told myself that I would not get out of the car until I remembered a time when I’d solved a problem. Finally, one came to me: A few Christmases ago, I was unsure of what to give my sister Jo, who is known within our family for the inventive presents that she gives the rest of us. What I’d come up with, after some soul-searching and a night parked in front of the TV, was that I would get her a T-shirt like the ones worn by the camp staff in the movie Dirty Dancing — a movie for which Jo and I both have a mortifying fondness. Across the front of the shirt, I would print the camp name: “Kellerman’s.” Across the back, I would print the movie’s most famous line, uttered by a smoldering Patrick Swayze: “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” My sister loved the shirt (though whether she wears it in public is a subject that we don’t discuss).

Eureka! Now I can say it — too late for Professor Ray’s class, but not too late for hundreds of thousands of Fast Company readers: At least one time in my life, I had a great idea.