The Mommy Rush

Learning, Exploring, Creating, and Growing.

Archive for the month “January, 2012”

A Creative Process: 7 steps to solving any of life’s problems

January is International Creativity Month, a perfect time to reflect on how to be more creative in our lives, to learn to recognize and act on opportunities for creative thinking, and to find (or thank) the muse that provides the inspiration for creating more great work.  According to Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), in her very moving TED talk, “The big mystery is that creativity does not always behave rationally. […] This is one of the most painful reconciliations we have to make in a creative life. But maybe it doesn’t have to be so full of anguish.  If you never have to believe in the first place, that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you.  … it starts to change everything.”

Creativity, or more specifically, the creative process, happens to be a passion of mine and has been ever since the year I first entered the workforce as an engineer, nearly 15 years ago, and was given an opportunity to lead my first design project.  I was thrilled at the opportunity, but at the same time, I was terrified because even though I had successfully completed a degree in electrical engineering, I didn’t feel quite qualified to lead a “real-world” design project from beginning to end.  So began my quest to learn about the  the creative problem-solving process. 

In any case, as one who doesn’t ever like to admit that I don’t know what I’m doing, I set to work on my personal study of the creative process and have been learning about it ever since.  During the years that followed, I’ve uncovered many very useful tools and suggestions that I use on a daily basis to solve problems, come up with ideas, make connections, etc.  My research on the topic of creativity is the main reason I often proclaim that “The best engineers are creative engineers.” when speaking or writing for STEM educators. I truly believe that without the tools necessary to add creativity to our work, we all become simple cogs in the system, keeping the status quo moving.  Innovation comes from the new ideas, the new processes, and all of this is made possible by the Creative Process.

In this post, I’d like to share my reflection on the very first book I ever read on the Creative Process, “The Universal Traveler:  a Soft-Systems Guide to Creativity, Problem Solving, & the Process of Reaching Goals”.  In my opinion this should be the guidebook for anybody looking for a way to think creatively.  For a long time, it was my crutch as I muddled through my first ever ‘cradle-to-grave’ design project (and I have the highlighted, dog-eared paperback to prove it. ) I’ve delivered many a presentation with only the knowledge I gained from the book and the application to my life as a professional engineer. 

  • Step 1 – Acceptance: When it comes to work and life, I have several quotes I use almost as mantras and one of my more common ones goes something like this  “The first step in solving a problem is identifying there is a problem.”    Or a more recent humorous derivative: “The first step in solving the problem is admitting you are PART of the problem…”  The key here is acceptance, defined by the authors as “self-motivation”. This is basically committing to devote time and resources to completing the 7 stages of the process to solve the given situation.  It is important to note, however, that the mantra I use really only covers part of this process.  I’m sure we all know that person who is identifying problems to no end:  aka ‘The Complainer’ who sees more problems than can be solved, or better yet, ‘The Critic’ who can point out the flaws in any situation.  Problems abound in their world.  Do not confuse these characters with a true Creative. Because in order to actually complete the 7 stages of the creative process, it is necessary to not only identify the problem, but to also commit to solving it.  A Creative does not identify problems for others to solve, but rather hunts for problems that only he or she can and will attempt to find a resolution.   This is so critical to the process and the ability to look at a problem and determine if it is something that should be and can be solved is the mark of a Creative. 
  • Step 2 – Analysis: Once a problem has been identified as something that needs attention, the next step is to spend some time researching and analyzing the problem to better understand the context and components involved. This is  also known as the “legwork” and is the process of taking a big picture look at the situation to see where there may be possible interrelationships with other subjects, to identify a list of attributes of the problem, and to follow the path of a similar problem.  The traditional method of analyzing a problem involves ‘looking it up’  (or the contemporary method, ‘googling it’) but a true Creative does not rely on one source or even one category of information.  Lateral thinking,( taking the wide view of a topic), morphological analysis (dividing wholes into parts), and making models of the problem (to examine a different point of view) are all creative ways to go about the analysis stage in the process.  A commonly used method in engineering, TRIZ, was developed by Genrikh Altshuller, and is defined as the “Theory of Inventive Problem Solving”. The process identifies 40 different ways to analyze a problem, which when utilized properly, is thought to be able to solve any problem.
  • Step 3 – Definition:  Didn’t we already define the problem in step 1?  Well, no, not exactly… In Step 1, all we did was determine there was a problem, and we committed to taking steps to attempt to solve it.  But during Step 1, we didn’t have enough information to actually ‘define the problem’.  In this stage, we set the expectations, for ourselves and anyone invested in the solution to the problem.  We have gathered lots of information during the analysis stage, now we need to extract meaning and awareness out of what we have gathered.  In this stage, we are ‘getting our bearings’, clarifying our objectives and establishing the criteria for a good ending and a successful solution.  The challenge is not so much in finding definition as much as it is selecting the single meaning that feels good enough to live with for the rest of the problem solving journey.  During this step, I often find myself flipping between several creative thinking methods such as prioritization (listing, categorizing, and prioritizing all relevant pieces of data) , essence finding (boiling down the many parts of a thin to capture its true underlying essence), and synectics (developing insight from the outside looking in). 
  • Step 4 – Ideation:  Although often confused with creative process, the ideation stage is not in itself a problem-solving process.  Ideas are ways; to go places and to do things. Ideas are options, ultimately to solve a problem.  But to begin the ideation stage before adequately ‘defining the problem’ (step 3), is a bit like buying a plane ticket without a destination.  Before we can develop a list of possible ideas we must be sure we have completed the definition stage.  Then and only then can we start the fun part – ‘Brainstorming’!  If you’ve ever participated in a good team brainstorming session, then you know how exciting it is to feed off the creative energy of a group.  The reality is, however, that brainstorming is only one way to generate ideas, albeit the most well-known.  Other strategies include using manipulative verbs or the SCAMPER method, analogical thinking through forced connections, and mind-mapping, all methods that can be used individually or with a group. (the video below is a great tutorial on mind-mapping, which is extremely helpful when teaching yourself how get your ideas out of your head and onto the page. )
  • Step 5 – Idea-Selection:  So, if ideation were the fun part of creativity, then idea-selection is the worst!  At least it always has been for me.  And I would venture to guess that this is true for most creatives, because in order to select an idea to try, you have to leave the rest behind.  Not an easy task if you think the list is any good.  Nevertheless, a prolific Creative knows that in order to solve a problem, something needs to be chosen for trial.  An experienced engineer will jump right in because he or she knows that ‘the first trial never  hardly ever works!’  (Sidenote:  I used to deliver this piece of wisdom to elementary students before I unleash them on an engineering challenge, because I’ve witnessed many a very dissappointed kindergartener who was sure his or her idea was going to work.  That was until I visited a class of 5th and 6th graders in this past year and observed a quiet, but brilliant pair of students attack the challenge using exactly this process.  While the rest of the children haggled about whose idea was best, these two very respectfully listened to the constraints, followed the instructions, and solved the problem in their first try, forcing me to re-evaluate my use of the word ‘never’.)  Strategies for selecting the best idea?  Well, that really is a personal decision, but for me decision trees, criteria-based ranking, and negative selection are my go-to methods for selection.  But, truth be told, there is no right way to do this.  At the end of the day, I’ve relied as much on my intuition as on any other method. (In my opinion, the strategies above are often more useful in justifying your selection when presenting or communicating an ultimate solution)
  • Step 6 – Implementation:  Now that you’ve picked a path to success, it is time to take action on your plan and ultimately begin the journey that will take you to your destination (a solution to the problem).  Theoretically, if you’ve followed the preceding 5 steps systematically, you will at least see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, it is not always a smooth journey.  And often this stage is the true test of how well you’ve accomplished Stage 1 (acceptance / committing to solving the problem).  In my work as an engineer, implementation is followed by several iterations of evaluating the solution against the criteria for success and then repeating Steps 3-6, until the solution is reached.  But in the context of an creative solution to a subjective problem, this stage could be as simple as communicating the idea to the stakeholders of the problem.  This could take the form of a formal presentation, a report, graphs, charts, diagrams, models and many more forms of artistic representation.  The key here is to be sure the product truly represents a solution and that the audience has enough information to understand it. 
  • Step 7 – Evaluation:  How often do we complete a project or solve a problem only to never think about it again?  Too often, in my opinion.  The evaluation step is critical to the development of your creative skills, whether you are an engineer, an artist, a business person, a teacher, or a parent.  How else will we know if we are meeting our goals, improving our world, or teaching our students?  At the very least we should take the time to reflect on the process we took to reach our solution -did we skip any steps? what was difficult?  what felt comfortable? – so that when (not if) we are faced with our next challenge we can be confident that we have the skills to solve it.  Truly, this is how we develop our creative muscle, and how you can have a Creative Life!

As Ms. Gilbert says, “Don’t be afraid.  Don’t be daunted.  Just do your job!  Contine to show up for your piece of it, whatever that may be. […]  If the divine cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, then, ‘Ole!’ to you.  But if not, then do your dance anyhow, and ‘Ole!’ to you, nonetheless.  Just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”  Yes, that is the secret to a creative life! 


2012: My Year of Balance and Knowing the Fish

Yesterday morning I visited the Lan Su Chinese Garden in downtown Portland and was truly inspired. I decided to finally visit this landmark in my hometown for 2 reasons, 1) the rain had let up and the weather was somewhat conducive to a walk in a garden, and 2) it was FREE! As a way to generate local interest in the Chinese culture and to prepare for the Chinese New Year celebration later this month, they have opened their doors for the Great Eight Free Days, because, as you may know, eight is a very lucky number in Chinese culture.

In anticipation of the visit, I expected to see some beautiful plants, architecture and design and to learn a thing or two about the garden. But what I left with was so much more. I was fortunate enough to arrive just as a tour was beginning, and there was just one other person in the tour so I pretty much had a personal tour from a very knowledgeable ‘Chino-phile’ (his word, not mine) and come to find out he is a published author of two books about Taoist principles, The Tao of Now, and the philosophy of tea, The Hut Beneath the Pine: Tea Poems.

What struck me most about the experience was how much the Taoist principles on which the garden design is based would resonate so strongly with me and where I am in my life.  The first pavilion we stopped in is known as the Knowing the Fish Pavilion and as we stepped into the square pavilion that overlooked the fish pond that spans the garden, Dan, our tour guide told the story of the two ancient philosophers, that the pavilion is named for.

One day Chuang Tzu and a friend were walking by a river.

“Look at the fish swimming about,” said Chuang Tzu, “They are really enjoying themselves.”

“You are not a fish,” replied the friend, “So you can’t truly know that they are enjoying themselves.”

“You are not me,” said Chuang Tzu. “So how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?”  

The moral of the story is that the fish are in their element, so they must be at peace. And when one is at peace, they are happy.  Then it follows that if one is in their element, they must be happy.  Chuang Tzu saw the fish in their element and knew that they were happy. 

This year, I’ve committed to live with intention, to stay within my element, and to ensure every moment that passes is spent in alignment with my values and within my element,  and more specifically to capture these moments here on The Mommy Rush.  But what are those values and where is my element?  These questions have been on my mind over the last 3 month ever since I left my full-time, very demanding position as a product manager for educational publisher,

It’s funny the way life works, isn’t it? I think back to my life at the beginning of last Summer, and I remember feeling like my stress level was at its max and that if I were given one more thing to deal with, life would fall apart.  And then the news, the surgery, and my view of life shifted dramatically.  I recieved my wake-up call and I decided to re-evaluate what I was put here to do.


Even before our family medical crisis, my inner voice was very quietly whispering that I needed a change, but it wasn’t until I had to face such a difficult challenge, that I realized what this meant.  I was off-track.  I was spending my very precious time on earth, on work and things that were out of alignment with my true purpose, my true spirit.  So, at the end of September, when my company began evaluating budget reduction options, I made it known that I was open to a change.  And on September 30, I parted ways with my full-time employer and since then I’ve been reflecting on what it is I was meant to do with my time on earth.  After several weeks of reflection there was at least one thing that I knew for sure, that, until now, I was not living life with any intention and I was not really living.

Living Fully

What does this really mean? Living Fully?  This was a big question that I knew would take a while to answer and so instead of jumping to my next project, I began to take note of moments when I felt like I was ‘in my element’; when I was enjoying what I was doing, learning a lesson, or creating a memory.  These moments were my clues to developing a list of values that define how I want to spend 2012.  In order to live in my element, like the fish in the pond, I’ve decided I will only spend my time and energy on activities that fall within my list of values.  As a means of simplifying the list, I’ve summarized each in one word and have described below what each means to me and what it will mean in 2012. 

  1. Purpose: In 2012, I will live with intention and accept my obligation to serve my purpose.  As recently as 6 months ago, if you were to ask me to describe my purpose, I would have had no problem.  This year, I would like to be less rigid about what this purpose is and to live each day within my present purpose.  Each day, I’ll ask myself, ‘what can I do today to live my life with intention, within the framework of my list of values?’  I imagine this year, I’ll continue to reflect on this concept and with any luck by next year, my purpose will be clear to me and all those around me.
  2. WisdomWhen I began to reflect on what types of activities make me feel most alive, one activity rose to the top of the list as very important to me: lifelong learning.  Not from an educator perspective, even though my career is focused on encouraging students to embrace lifelong learning, but rather a desire to learn for learning’s sake.  As a voracious reader, I want to be more purposeful about applying the lessons I learn from reading and from life itself.
  3. Connection:  It’s no secret that I value my family to no end.  Though my offspring are often the source of my craziness, they are also the source of the majority of my joy – capturing this joy was the original intent of this blog!  I also heavily value my relationships, with my husband, my immediate and extended family, and longtime and recent friendships.  This year I will dedicate my efforts to developing these connections and allowing them to enrich my life.
  4. Spirit:  It is hard to put into words how critical inspiration is for me; when I am inspired there is no stopping me.  However, when I’ve lost my inspiration, or have allowed my spirit to be depleted, I find myself trying to dig my way out of a deep ditch – which often involves a day at the spa or a solitary retreat.  This year, I will make a conscious effort to feed my spirit, to avoid the need to retreat from life to recharge.  I’ve heard the term “Sharpen the Saw”, and that is my goal, this year.
  5. Journey:  I have a deep and significant desire to travel the world, to experience life in different parts of the world.  This year, I will design my life to include opportunities to make regular journeys that enrich my life, whether they are international adventures or local field trips to expand my horizons and to continue my quest for wisdom.  Yesterday’s visit to the Lan Su Chinese Garden is a perfect example of a local journey that has impacted me through inspiration and exploration.  More and more of these journeys, this year!
  6. Energy When I began to think about when I feel most alive, I most certainly know that eating healthy and being fit are important not only for my physical health, but for my mental health as well.  When I look back at 2011, I’m pleased that I managed to accomplish at least one goal I had for the year – to lose much of the weight I’d hung onto since my last 2 pregnancies.  I accomplished this through a simple routine of adding 2-3 easy runs to my week.  As a lifelong runner, this baby step in improving my health and fitness did wonders for my mental fitness as well.  This year, I will continue with this routine and consciously care for my energy levels through the health and fitness of my body.
  7. Simplicity:  This concept of simplification has been calling to me for some time.  2011 found me taking some steps to purge our home from unnecessary clutter.  However, there is so much more to do, and I’ve learned that the effort towards simplicity requires a wholehearted dedication to a simple living mindset.  This year, I am committed to living simply, mainly to make room, literally and figuratively, for the many new experiences and joys I plan to focus on, in the near future. 
  8. Nourishment This value comes from my love of good food and the process of preparing good food from whole foods, something I love, but with a busy household and demanding career, rarely have had the time to incorporate into our lives.  This year, I will pay close attention to how we nourish our bodies with food, and will focus and reflect on the meals and foods our whole family puts into our bodies.  In addition, I will allow myself to explore, enjoy, and learn about the foods and drinks that I absolutely  love: wine, tea, chocolate, and cheese.


To sum up my focus for 2012, I’ve decided to focus on BALANCE, which was a key principle used in the design of the Lan Su Chinese Garden.  Balance, depicted through the concepts of Yin and Yang are infused throughout the garden, as well as the philosophy of the Tao.  I will maintain Balance; of work and life, energy and spirit, wisdom and simplicity.   I will maintain Balance and through Balance I will Know the Fish.

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