Can “mess” generate creativity? The TED Talk by Tim Harford, titled “How messy problems can inspire creativity” suggests exactly that. It was an interesting idea to me. Tim suggests that adding a dash of mess or randomness inspires creativity in what people do. He gave the example of composer Brian Eno whose role was to add the mess for many rock and roll bands so that their music would be creative and successful. How did they add the mess? Brian used disruptive cards (also known as “The Oblique Strategies”) that included instructions such as “everyone switch musical instruments” or “amplify the most embarrassing details.” It was about taking people out of complacency and putting them in an environment where they had to slow down and work harder. Crazy as the strategy seemed, it drove some of the most creative rock and roll music from legends like U2, David Bowie, Phil Collins, and Talking Heads.
I found myself wanting to try it. How can I add some mess to something I do, like writing? And would that inspire creativity? Challenge accepted.
But what would be “messy”? That was the hard part. I needed something that would throw me off my game. Something that would make me uncomfortable. Something that would make it hard to do what I normally do.
I do what I normally do in these situations. I reached out to my longtime friend, confidant and trusted colleague, Julie. I often jokingly call her my “Devil’s Advocate.” Why? In a situation like this, she knows me enough to know if I’m truly challenging myself. Am I truly holding myself accountable? I asked her to watch the TED Talk and help me brainstorm ideas for the “mess.”
“You are headed this weekend to Rosemont, IL for that cosplay thing with your daughter?”, Julie asked.
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“Well,” Julie replied, “What about challenging yourself to write there? You already mentioned that you don’t know much about cosplay. It’s a different topic. It’s a different and busy location. And heck, what can be messier than tossing three thirteen old girls into the picture?”
Just like that, the mess was added. Other than my book, most of my writing had been posts on LinkedIn. I had never written in this way: reporting out on a topic. It would be a challenging and exhausting location. I really didn’t know much about this cosplay thing.
“Cosplay” is a term developed from combining the words costume and play and was first used in Japan in 1984. It evolved in the 1990s from a science fiction thing to role-playing any character from movies, television, or books.
Where to start? Well, I guess with becoming the student. My daughter was ecstatic to teach me. First assignment: a crash course in Japanese anime film, specifically “My Hero Academia.” Why? She planned to dress as characters from the film during the convention.
First came a warning. My thirteen-year-old daughter began to explain, “Mom, I just want you to know that the films don’t always portray women in the best light. Sometimes there is laughing and giggling. Well, you’ll see.”
In the first few episodes, it was clear to me what she meant. Somehow Japan had missed the women’s movement. Girls were portrayed as silly, shy, and giggling. But then there was one female superhero charging to the scene of villains. I looked at my daughter getting ready to say, “it’s not that bad” when the female superhero stopped dead in her tracks.
“No, not my weakness!” she exclaimed.
Weakness? I was confused. I didn’t see anything.
Then my daughter explained that her weakness was the inability to run down streets smaller than double wide. Her shapely hips would move side to side, smashing into buildings and causing more damage. The strong female superhero stood dead in her tracks.
I was proud of my daughter who was immersing herself in the Japanese culture. She didn’t let this part dissuade her from following the story. On the contrary, she wanted to learn more about their way of life. I would find her often in the international aisle of the grocery store. Chopsticks started to become the daily silverware for her with several Japanese words tossed in alongside. Funny. She was being inclusive: accepting people for who they are and letting the slightly offensive things slide by.
The storylines in the Japanese anime films were fascinating. I could see why she chose these characters. With a full understanding of the character comes the “cosplay.” It was about bringing these characters to life — no need for her to dress up as the girls. Dressing as a character of an opposite sex was accepted in the cosplay arena.
It was an interesting topic. I had never written in this way before. My book was about how I changed as a leader and most of my blogs also involved self-reflection. I felt like a journalist with a story to cover. I realized in that moment, I too, was cosplaying. I was a journalist covering a story. I was going on assignment and challenged with what to write about.
I pondered what the story would be as we made the long drive from Detroit to the Con Alt Delete convention in Rosemont, IL. The trip seemed even longer with three teenage girls, rocking out to Japanese tunes on the way. Then I wondered how I was going to write in the middle of all the chaos? Very messy indeed.
But I put my reporter mindset and began with just observing. Simply observing. There were characters galore. You could be anybody or anything. There were traditional characters like pirates, cowboys, and policeman. There were fairy tale characters, like Belle, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty followed of course, by villains: Maleficent and the evil Queen. Some costumes I didn’t quite understand like the man dressed in a dark suit who held an Eggo box consistently in front of him as he walked. Then out of the blue, I see Bob Ross, the famous painter from the 1980’s TV Show, “The Joy of Painting.” This Bob Ross looked exactly like Bob Ross. It was uncanny how close some characters represented so closely that character.
The costumes were so creative! Not just how they represented who they were, like Bob Ross, but also in the actual construction of the costumes. My daughter’s friend, Catherine, is a perfect example. She went as XX, a character that has a hand over her face. How did she get her costume? She carefully crafted it from wire, filling and molding, and painted it in a very rustic color. She then hung the carefully crafted hand with a slingshot cord that kept it applied to her face. The innovation captured the attention and admiration of fellow cosplayers as she walked around the convention squinting through the peepholes.
“Can I take your picture?” was asked over and over. Cosplayers were polite, and permission was required to snap the picture with your admired character. That taken picture was the ultimate reward. Code for “I love what you’ve done with your character.” The more creative and more innovative, received more reward and recognition.
But there was something more than that. I entered the next stage of my cosplay character as a reporter: interviewing. One character walked by me as I was typing. He was dusting and cleaning but in a costume. A passerby remarked to the gentleman, “You’re doing a great job!”
“Thank you,” he replied as he continued to proudly clean the hotel’s exterior. They were strangers and then connected by the cosplay connection. I probed that character. I asked him, “Who was he and why does he do it?”
He was “Levi, Mr. Clean,” a character whose sole purpose was to clean. But the humble man playing the character said to me, “People seem to really like it,” and so he kept on cleaning, right in front of me.
That’s when it dawned on me. No one was on their phones. There was some picture taking, of course, but that was a formality. It was pure human socialization. People meeting. People chatting. People dancing. People posing with “paparazzi-like crowds.” Just human energy and it was contagious. I smiled at the characters. Some with a thumbs up. Sometimes with a quick compliment, “great job! “Always returned with a humble “thank you.”
This was just the energy in the hallways and open areas of the convention. There were also self-organized character panels. My daughter had signed up for two of these. She sat at a table with other known characters from the Japanese film. All in character, both in dress and personality. The room filled with an entire audience of Cosplayers who came to watch and ask questions. It paralleled a business forum or sports interview with the same energy that was in the hallways.
As I observed and reflected on the colorful environment and engaging activities, something interesting struck me. These days, technology is moving so fast! Artificial Intelligence. Blockchain. Cloud. Quantum Computing. Our reaction to change is not always to embrace, especially when unfamiliar. I don’t know how many times I thought that my daughter spent too much time zoning out on the phone or iPad and was concerned about her about missing social interaction. But maybe the human connection is just evolving alongside technology. She is immersed in another culture. I don’t even remember studying other countries when I grew up. She is making friends both at school and online. Online, she is making friends specifically around her interest: cosplay. I remember growing up and having rare interests, but there was no path for that. We only had standards like sports and academic clubs. She is well on her path now to figuring out what she loves, and technology has played a huge role in that! As a society, we will always struggle with change. It’s just human nature.
Then it got better. As a parent, you worry about all the dangers and technology heightens that. Stranger Danger when I was young meant “don’t get in an unmarked van with a stranger.” Now with technology, it feels exponentially more exposed. I started talking with my daughter about online predators and strange people that might show at the convention with ill intent. She firmly began to explain to me that the cosplay groups she had joined already recognized that. These online groups full of her friends were discussing tactics for addressing that possibility.
Then my daughter turned to me and said, “Plus, I have the three-flag rule.”
“Three flag rule?” I asked, “Is this something through Cosplay?”
“No, mom,” she responded. “It’s just my own thing. You see, they are things I check for. Flag One: is something going on that’s taking me away from the location? Flag Two: is something going on that’s taking me away from the group? And Flag Three which is most important. Do I feel weird about anything going on?”
I sat there in shock. She had worked this out on her own, with the online discussion amongst her online friends. She gained a leap of faith and independence from me in that moment. As proud as I was, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad that my little child was well on her way to becoming her own adult.
I am thankful for the insight and reflection that writing about this convention has brought me. But I am more thankful and extremely grateful for what I learned about my daughter and how it strengthened our connection as she draws closer to adulthood.
Oh, but don’t let me forget! This was a story within a story, wasn’t it? Back to adding the mess and did it lead to creativity? To innovation?
I am exhausted and finishing this piece with the same enthusiasm I began. As I finish this last paragraph, it dawns on me that this piece would make for a nice article. Not only that, but it makes for a great assignment in innovation. Without adding the mess, I would have missed the insights presented here and the opportunity it has brought. But more meaningful that, adding mess allowed me to see a different side of my daughter. It opened the door to learning something about her life and strengthening our connection.
To answer the question, “Did adding mess lead to creativity? “For my daughter and me, it has left me with a memory I will always cherish and expanded my passion for writing. So, consider what you can make messy today and where it takes you.