Doing Better at Doing Good

Doing Better at Doing Good: Follow Angelou's legacy of creativity

CorrespondentsJuly 5, 2014 

North Carolina lost a creative sage when Maya Angelou, a longtime Winston-Salem resident and professor at Wake Forest University, died in late May at age 86. Though renowned for such autobiographical works as "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Angelou didn't publish her first book until her early 40s.

Before that, she had carved out a distinguished career as a dancer, singer, actress, journalist and leader in the civil rights movement. Even after her autobiographies, poetry and other books brought her fame, she continued to expand her artistic horizons as a composer, screenwriter and film director.

Most of us are not as prodigiously gifted as Angelou, but a growing body of research suggests that we all have the ability to enhance our levels of creativity quite significantly - at work, at home and in our communities. And with IBM's 2012 global survey of CEOs naming creativity as one of the top skills that companies seek in employees, getting better at it is a smart investment in our future.

8 steps to creativity

Beyond Angelou's towering example, our home state offers a wealth of inspiration and learning opportunities in this arena. One practical resource to add to your summer reading list is Keith Sawyer's recent book "Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity." Sawyer, a creativity expert and professor of education innovation at UNC-Chapel Hill who began his career designing video games for Atari, maintains that "all human beings … possess the same mental building blocks that inventive minds stack high to produce works of genius."

In "Zig Zag," Sawyer explores an eight-step approach, grounded in numerous exercises and activities, for unlocking our creative potential. He begins with teaching us how to ask the right questions and leads us through a process that concludes with advice for identifying our best ideas and making them tangible. At 275 pages, it's a conversational and accessible read.

Design-based learning

For a briefer jolt of creative inspiration, check out Emily Pilloton's TED talk about her efforts to help transform education in eastern North Carolina. In a compelling speech of slightly less than 17 minutes, Pilloton, an entrepreneur who runs Project H Design in Berkeley, Calif., explains how she and her business partner created Studio H. This first-of-its kind initiative introduced design-based learning into high school classrooms in rural Bertie County, about 100 miles east of Raleigh.

For three years, Pilloton lived in Bertie County, working as a full-time public school teacher. She developed and taught a curriculum on design thinking and vocational shop skills for high school juniors in a region where jobs are scarce. By the time Pilloton moved Studio H to California in 2012, after continued funding challenges in Bertie County, her students had completed 15 architectural and design projects that served the local economy. They included a farmer's market pavilion, two smaller farm stands and three public chicken coops in a community where a chicken processing plant was the largest employer.

As Pilloton wrote in a note to supporters after wrapping up her work in North Carolina, "anything is possible when youth are given the creative and real-world tools to build physical solutions."

'Think like an artist'

Adults committed to enhancing their own creativity benefit from the same hands-on opportunities as well. Charlotte's McColl Center for Visual Art is making them available for individuals and groups through its new "Think Like an Artist" series. Sessions led by professional artists on dealing with ambiguity, seeing from different perspectives and breaking habitual thinking help participants strengthen their problem-solving abilities and creative capacity.

The McColl Center already has an impressive track record, having provided similar artist-led sessions to more than 50 global companies since 2005. Now its Innovation Institute is enrolling participants in its two-day programs for individuals, which are scheduled for Sept. 18-19 and Nov. 7-8. Tuition is $1,200. Custom programs for groups of all sizes, ranging from 45 minutes to several days, can also be developed, with fees depending on the complexity of the program.

As Maya Angelou herself once said, "You can't use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have." What better way to honor her legacy than by following her example?

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of "Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives." Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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