Keeping the Spark

The challenges of staying creative over an academic career

Vol. 11 No. 6
May 2009

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Keeping the Spark
The challenges of staying creative over an academic career

Podcasts: The Challenges of Staying Creative: Stories from Emory

The Center for Faculty Development and Excellence

“When people are willing to get ‘off track,’ that is when I see them at their most creative. When they stop worrying about traditional modes of recognition, they tend to be far more spontaneous.”

“I‘m quite happy to work on a project for a number of years and have it simply not realize itself . . . because I know there are other things that will come to fruition.”

“Having a community of scholars you relate to is important to creativity and important to grooming people to be creative thinkers.”

Show Up and Get to Work
Time, solitude, and creative breakthroughs

On Becoming a Scientist-Advocate
Creative new possibilities for approaching and teaching science

Crazy Thinking
How the most creative ideas get generated and selected


In the early 1990s, sociologist Roberto Franzosi’s career derailed. Some of his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin–Madison cast a dubious eye on his work, and he was denied tenure, leaving him unemployed for two years. “They were saying, What’s Franzosi going to do with these thousands of words in the computer?” he recalls.

But Franzosi, now a professor of sociology and linguistics at Emory, kept the faith. He continued his endeavors to code written texts (such as newspaper reports) and analyze narrative with statistics. Decades and many temporary positions after he conceived the project, From Words to Numbers: Narrative, Data, and Social Science was published by Cambridge University Press in 2004, the four-volume Content Analysis appeared from Sage in 2008, Quantitative Narrative Analysis will appear from Sage in 2009, and “The Trilogy of Rhetoric: Rhetorical Foundations of Social Science Quantitative Work” is forthcoming from Cambridge. “I’ve always produced what I think is important work,” he says. “And my best work came when I had my shoulder against the wall—in 1992–93, I was unemployed, when I was fifty at Oxford and still without a permanent job—each time thinking, I’ve got to up the ante. I had a lot of setbacks, but I never gave up.”

According to the University of Chicago economist David Galenson, Franzosi would be an “Old Master.” Galenson argues that there are two types of creative people in his book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton 2006). His “Young Geniuses,” or “conceptual” thinkers, have a goal in mind, aim to express new ideas, and move on quickly to the next project. The “Old Masters,” or “experimental” innovators, like Franzosi, employ trial and error over many years, accumulate knowledge, and produce their best work later in life.

Franzosi’s story and Galenson’s analysis, which he based on a qualitative study of creative productivity, should reassure those who struggle with the prevailing notion that creativity is the province of youth and its brash energies. Certainly, however, the challenges of staying excited about one’s work are different at different stages of a career—especially an academic one.

Creativity stories

This theme is of particular interest to Emory’s new Center for Faculty Development and Excellence (CFDE) over the next few years: how do faculty renew creative energy through changing life circumstances? What are the challenges to creativity, such as boredom or depression? How can Emory foster a creative environment? How do we stay creative through economic anxiety?

The first opportunity to explore these questions came on April 1, when the CFDE, along with the Academic Exchange, Initiative on Creativity and the Arts, and Psychoanalytic Studies Program, sponsored a gathering of forty-five faculty to hear several Emory colleagues tell stories of their own creative highs and lows. In 2009–2010, the CFDE will offer courses for assistant and associate professors around the question of creativity (in addition to basic matters such as tenure and teaching portfolios). Further, the CFDE will bring to campus at least two outside speakers on this theme.

In this Academic Exchange, some faculty members, most of whom spoke at that April gathering, share stories of creativity in their work. In two interviews, Barbara Stoll from pediatrics talks about the importance of flexibility and openness to ambiguity in her professional life, and Sander Gilman, from the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts and psychiatry, discusses his NASA-inspired approach of pursuing multiple projects at once (Gilman, who earned tenure at age twenty-four and is a self-described “tinkerer,” would qualify as one of Galenson’s “Young Geniuses”).

Following these interviews, in “Show Up and Get to Work,” visual artist Katherine Mitchell writes of not waiting for inspiration but of making room for it. Neuroscience and behavioral biology faculty member Lori Marino, in “On Becoming a Scientist-Advocate,” relates her mid-career decision to take an unconventional and controversial stance as a scientist–advocate and the creative possibilities that decision has opened up. Finally, AE associate editor Steve Frandzel examines the work of two Goizueta Business School faculty, Russell Coff and Jill Perry-Smith, on how creative ideas are generated and selected in business—and, by extension, in academe.

In the research

The study of creativity over the lifespan, by psychologists in particular, has been around for nearly a century, and until lately the news for folks over age forty was grim. In the 1920s, Stanford University researcher Louis Terman began conducting longitudinal studies of gifted children, noting that not all of them ended up with creative abilities. In his eccentric 1953 classic, Age and Achievement (Princeton UP), Harvey Lehman identified correlations between age and outstanding performance in fields ranging from lyric poetry (twenty-six to thirty-one) and chemistry (before thirty) to amateur bowling (before thirty-four).

In more recent years, Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis, has written voluminously on topics such as Creativity in Science: Chance, Logic, Genius, and Zeitgeist (Cambridge UP 2004) and Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity (Oxford UP 1999), in which he notes a difference between the kind of creativity behind the masterworks of a visual artist or an author and the kind that leads to radical discoveries in science, for example. Both kinds, he suggests, require a mastery of skills, but scientists thrive within the constrained world of scientific process, while artists tend to appreciate less structured environments.

There is more to the creative environment than structure or lack thereof, however. Psychologist Jing Zhou of Rice University identifies two critical factors for environments that encourage creative work: supportive management and creative colleagues. The work of Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile suggests that while freedom, support, and positive challenges encourage creativity, fragmented work schedules, time pressure, isolation, and insufficient resources can kill it. On the other hand, Zhou also has found that some anxiety and unhappiness can stir the creative energies.

Troubled times

Those questions of resources and anxiety hit home during this time of decreased economic power in academe. As Sander Gilman remarks, “Durkheim, in his big book on suicide, talked about the fact that in times of economic retrenchment, when we no longer trust the structures of experience which are part of our daily lives, like the economy, there’s a tendency for us to collapse within ourselves.”

What advice do experts have for staying productive during the recession? In a Harvard Business Review article (February 2009), London Business School economist Donald Sull draws on a boxing analogy. He compares George Foreman, whose sheer bulk enabled him to absorb blows yet still deliver them, to Muhammad Ali, whose nimbleness and agility helped him seize the briefest moment of opportunity. He suggests that combining both approaches—“the ability to consistently identify and seize opportunities while retaining the structural characteristics to weather changes”—will help businesses and individuals thrive in these turbulent times.

“What frightens me a little bit right now,” adds Gilman, “is that many individuals and institutions are trying to sit in their neutral corner, thinking it’s a safe space. But if you sit there long enough, you get tired and fat. The creative juices flow only when one is engaged with one’s profession, one’s institution, the world beyond the institution.”

Perhaps few understand the relationship between creativity and hardship better than Roberto Franzosi, but it is not hardship alone that motivates him. “My driving force over the last few years has been the idea of creating something unique and beautiful,” he says. “The way I think of creativity is that it’s not one big, incredible idea, but one thousand little ideas. It is like specks of light that make up a kaleidoscope or fireworks. Each individual speck of light is inconsequential and not very exciting, but it’s the way all these little specks of light are put together.”—A.O.A.