Creativity is More Than a Pretty Word

Planet Earth
Planet Earth needs your creative spirit

Strange that creativity has become a novelty as if being able to decorate a room or to dress unconventionally is all there is to being “creative”. Don’t get me wrong. I greatly appreciate someone who can allow my eyes to feast on a beautiful visual experience.

But let’s open up the word creativity. Creativity, in my opinion, is the ability to design an original product, to develop art, to grow a life, to bring into being an experience, to generate a solution. Creativity is in essence about our ability to make something happen.

To create then is one of the most fulfilling capacities we can exercise.

The more we create, the more we are able to design our lives.
The more we design our lives, the more we can make a difference.
The more we can make a difference, the better this world will be.

So get ready to open up to your creative spirit as I explore what stops it, what enables it, and how you can strengthen it.

Sketching Out a Game Plan

Chris Hsiung’s occupation seemed the perfect fit. A software engineer for eight years at Nortel Networks Corp., he had grown up glued to the keyboard. But he also had a calling, seeded in past days as a junior high peer tutor: Hsiung wanted to guide people. He founded U Venture in 2007 and now offers strategy on everything from career transitions to exploring your hidden creative side. But to go from coding to coaching, he needed a little guidance of his own.

For Hsiung, 32, it started in Paris. Embedded in France by Nortel for a year-long stint, he was shocked when he returned to Cowtown in 2002. “Culturally, we’re very different,” he says of the European approach to business. He recalls being denied entry to the Paris office one weekend by security because working overtime was not permitted without the vice-president’s approval, something that would assuredly never happen in Calgary.

Hsiung sought reconnection with Calgary’s community, turning to the Leadership Calgary course with Volunteer Calgary. He liked its “lifelong learning” focus – it fit with his knack for teaching people, a talent he had used while implementing software training programs at Nortel.

However, Hsiung soon realized he wanted a lifestyle change, as well. After attending a lecture by Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire in 2004, he was flooded with an array of mixed emotions. He began to think about his role in the world and the difference that he could make. “He was talking about child soldiers. It had a strong emotional impact on me,” Hsiung recalls of the lecture.

He injected this newfound altruism into his life. Jumping onboard with the Learning Village, an after-school activities program, he started looking for courses in volunteer soccer training, but came across a life-coaching course instead. “It was serendipitous,” he says. “There were no soccer-coaching courses available.” He signed up thinking it might provide a few new skills. Instead, he got hooked.

While pursuing his Co-Active Coaching certification at the University of Calgary, Hsiung hired a life coach of his own to help him with his quest for self-reinvention. He was taken aback when his coach suggested he change employment gears. “He said, ‘It seems like you want to go off on your own,’ and I said, ‘No, no, no.’?” Then, waking up one morning, he had an epiphany. He realized that lifelong learning was his passion – and that coaching others was the platform he needed to pursue it.

But Hsiung still had to face his biggest barrier in making a career change – letting go of societal expectations. He worried about disappointing his parents, who had supported his engineering career and didn’t consider jobs other than the standard doctor, lawyer or engineer to be viable occupations. “You always get these signals of what success is,” he says.

Other fears existed, too. Hsiung had to deal with taking a pay cut. “Usually, when you start a business, you’re in the hole,” he says. He reworked his finances so he wouldn’t “burn through them” right away, took on roommates for extra income, and dipped into his savings to start Human Ventures in 2007.

Almost two years later, he is often called upon to coach people through similar life transitions, but doesn’t recommend making any drastic life changes such as the ones he went through. Instead, he suggests people change their lives through small increments.

“I remember coaching one person who had a passion for mountain bikes on the weekends. She loved sharing that with other people. It struck me: ‘Why don’t you hold a workshop and charge money for it? Then, you can see if there’s any interest and if you like teaching.’?” says Hsiung, offering a final piece of advice: Always test the waters before taking the plunge.

by K.D. Attwell

“Sketching Out a Game Plan” was featured in the October 2008 Edition of Calgary Inc.

Deadly Daydreams

Have you ever driven down a highway in a hurry to get to a meeting, see a person in need on the side of the road, and think, “someone else will be able to help”? Or how do you respond when you hear two people swearing or shouting at each other? I know I sometimes turn away or ignore it. A part of me whispers, “I don’t want to get involved.”

Then I remember the New York times story of Kitty Genovese who was stabbed over a half-hour period near an apartment where many of the people who heard the screams didn’t call the police simply because they didn’t want to get involved.

Were they / we apathetic, cruel, evil people? Probably not any more so than others. More likely they / we were human beings overwhelmed by the moment without a strong enough framework to take the right action. We were frozen unable to move like in a bad dream.

What does it take to respond appropriately in the moment in these highly charged situations? It takes much more than just being in the moment. It also requires understanding that moment and being prepared for it. Here is a small scenario to illustrate the factors involved.

Imagine having just driven hours with friends to go on a summer hike you had been planning for weeks. Yesterday’s weather report forecasted sunny and clear. You arrive at the trailhead and indeed it is sunny. But just as you are about to start, you notice a posted weather notice indicating a 30% chance of snow. You were prepared for cold weather but not snow; in fact nobody in your group has hiked in snow. Would you be the one to bring this up with your excited friends? Would you have the nerve to postpone or worse cancel? Or would it be easy to rationalize… “it probably won’t snow and besides snow is not so different from what I’ve experienced.”

A curious thing happens at that moment of decision. With hopes and social pressures high, you may start to “bend the map” (see Deep Survival), a process by which you try to alter reality to match your expectations. You begin to overestimate your skills and that of your peers. You judge the weather to indicate great weather. You fail to even entertain the idea of reassessing your capabilities and equipment. It just “feels” right… so you roll the cosmic dice with your life.

What happened? The social pressures, the heightened emotions got in the way of measured thought. Furthermore, the voice of the moment always seems more urgent and important than the faint voice of the future which may or may not come to pass. It’s your own personal Cassandra, that Greek mythological figure who predicted the future but was believed by no one.

While nothing may have happened for that trip, sometimes events conspire to create the disasters or accidents that could have been prevented.

On January 28, 1986 at 11:38 am the Challenger lifted off while broadcast on three major TV networks. Seventy-three seconds later to the horror of those watching, the external fuel tanks ruptured and killed the crew of seven.

Later investigations revealed that the O ring which normally sealed the joints between sections on the booster rocket failed under the cold launch conditions. With the hundreds of thousands of people involved and multiple complex systems working together, one might expect that a problem or two may slip through.

However, what NASA failed to understand was not so much the technical behaviour of the O ring as it was the human behaviour of the system. Concerns about the O ring had been raised. One contractor went as far as to strongly advise that it was unsafe to fly. These concerns were ignored for the same reasons you might ignore the posted weather report. Eleventh-hour decisions, crisis mode thinking, social pressures, uncertainty of data all prevented warning signs from being acted upon. With the “world watching” on the networks and pressure from the Reagan administration to launch, NASA’s culture inadvertently shifted from “prove to me it is safe to fly” to “prove to me it is unsafe to fly” (see Flirting with Disaster).

All this is to say that if the consequences are high, the system complex, and the understanding uncertain, your first gut instinct response is not likely to be a good one.

How can you avoid getting caught up in the moment like NASA employees or the New York apartment dwellers?

One helpful strategy is to understand the sources of critical problems, determine the warning cues that hint at the problems, and develop action plans for the cues. For example, an important lesson in self-defense is awareness of surroundings and the ability recognize threat cues. Threat cues are warning signals that potentially hint at actual threats. Perhaps a person walks towards you in a certain way, or a person watches you for longer than normal. Taken together with other environmental cues (time of day, location), you may be able to recognize a threat and act on it (crossing the road, going back the way you came) before it becomes life-threatening.

For me, I have taken to the habit of turning towards any shouting or swearing to scan the situation. Should I call 911? Should I intervene? Or do I just need to continue watching? In the hiking situation, having an exit plan in advance for unforeseen circumstances would help while NASA would have done well to build in protection against last-minute decisions.

Knowing what cues to look for, however, requires a deep understanding of the systems in operation. Serious hiking requires an understanding of survival situations. A space shuttle launch requires generations of people experimenting, building, learning. It is no minor task!

While we need to build our ability to recognize warning cues and act on them, organizations must also build in systems to enable dissenting action. Social norms and culture are after all more influential than individuals. Thoughtful companies have provided third-party phone lines for employees to report ethical breaches recognizing that “ratting out” your peers is often considered a worse crime than reporting the truth.

Nevertheless, it is your responsibility to take action when needed. While we may never have to watch others die like Kitty Genovese, we are all engaged with high pressure situations that test our character. So take the time to understand the system, recognize the warning signs, and act on them despite what others may say or think.

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
HUMAN Venture Coaching

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.

How DEEP is your Creative Space?

There are many fleeting moments of fulfillment… an intimate connection with another human being, a beautifully played soccer game, a breathtaking view at the end of a hike. Creating something, however, is a kind of fulfillment that lasts many moments more. Sometimes it lasts just long enough to be eaten and other times it lasts well past future generations.

Part 1 was about opening up a play space for your imagination. Part 2 is about the often neglected part of creativity… deepening your creative space. Strangely enough, the process of replacing my toilet has provided me with some startling insights.

Before you recoil in horror at the thought of toilets, many a great ideas have been had on the seat of inspiration! There is more to this story though. If you indulge me, it is every bit relevant to deepening your creative space.

Admiring the Mystery

When I first looked at my toilet, I was overcome by a sense of dread. It’s dirty. It’s heavy. And let’s face it, every first-time replacement takes longer than planned.

Upon attaining a pre-repair zen-like state (please join me in taking a deep breath…), the toilet attains a certain mystique. For instance,

How is it one button can cause the whole thing to flush?
Why does the water in the bowl actually get sucked out (along with its contents)?
How could a low-flush toilet work better than a high-flush toilet?

Isn’t it incredible in this digital age (where most things require electricity or gas) that we have in our homes a device which operates time and time again without it?

Except for when it doesn’t and then it’s even more of a mystery.

It is a mystery and here’s the thing… I could stare at this toilet for the rest of my life and I will be no closer to figuring out how to replace it.

I have to take off the cover!

Similarly, it’s easy to admire a beautiful sculpture and wonder in amazement at its beauty. But underneath the wonder is a richer place of mysteries where the source of creation thrives. Underneath is a story of struggle and success, despair and discipline. Unless you’re ready to take the cover off, you will fail to find your creative spirit.

Looking Beneath the Surface

When the cover is off, you get to see a simple machine in action. The handle opens up the flush valve to let the water flow into the bowl. After it has flushed, the tank refills itself ready for the next flush.

Watch it one day. Really… try it if you haven’t already.

Isn’t it strange and wondrous?

Why does the valve open with one press, but close only after it has all flushed? How does it know how much water to put into the tank? What happens if the water keeps on filling?

With a little curiosity and experimentation, you’ll have no difficulty in figuring out how it works.

As a bonus, once you do know how it works, you’ll find that it is no trouble at all to understand how to fix a leaking tank or a broken handle.

In a day where we want it fixed now and we want it given to us now, it is hard to take an hour or two to understand.

Creativity can be like that too. Sometimes you know something is not quite right. A note is wrong, the taste is off, the idea doesn’t work… sometimes all it takes is the patience to stop and reflect and understand.

Going Down the Toilet Hole

I turned off the water, flushed the toilet to drain the tank, siphoned away the remaining water, detached the water hose, and unscrewed the washers that held the tank in place. With the tank removed, I was left with the bowl part of the toilet.

Did you know that you can still flush the toilet without the tank?

For the experienced home owners, you may already know that pouring a large bucket of water into the bowl will cause the toilet to flush.

Haven’t tried it? Go ahead and try it for fun. I did….

Why does it do that?

Now for some of you, the question might be “why care?” Which is a legitimate question. You may have no reason to know. But let’s say that you wanted to build a better toilet, or let’s say that you wanted to know how rich and complex a creation is… then you’d have to know.

The magic really is in the bowl. A cross-section reveals a simple arrangement that belies the complex physics involved. Somehow, this structure is capable of sucking out the contents of the bowl. How?

Unlike the water tank, it isn’t obvious at first glance how it works.

The key is understanding how a siphon works which dates back to 1500 BCE when the Egyptians used it to empty jars. When you put enough water into the bowl, the siphon will fill and literally pull the water out of the bowl.

When air escapes into the siphon, it stops pulling water out of the bowl causing that gurgling sound.

Put the tank and the bowl together and you get the basics of how a toilet works. The tank of water essentially acts like the bucket of water which causes the bowl to flush.

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Understanding Siphons
Remember grade school science? If you put a tube filled with water into a tank of water, the water will drain out the other end without any additional help as long as the one end is placed lower than the other end.

To understand the physics behind the siphon, see

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The average society plays to the myth that creativity spontaneously springs out of thin air… companies make sudden breakthroughs, scientists cry “Eureka!”, the public discovers the next celebrity artist. While luck and circumstances certainly play a big part, not enough credit goes to the effort that these people or organizations spent to develop their expertise.

The Wright Brothers spent eight years in the workshop testing different wing configurations, building different motors, and practicing flight controls. When they finally revealed their invention, a few kids were watching and the news barely acknowledged it.

Drawing from the Best

I removed the bowl with a great heave and at last I was in view of the pipe (rough-in) that takes everything to the sewer. I replaced the wax ring with a new one. And now I prepared my new top-of-the-line low-flush toilet. My parent’s have a similar model and I remember watching amazed at how powerfully it flushed with only six litres of water (as opposed to my fifteen litres).

If you had to design a toilet that flushes better with less water, how would you do it?

If you have been following how the toilet works, you can probably come up with some reasonably good ideas.

Before you get too excited though, consider what resources you would need to implement it. Below is a diagram of the improved toilet from the maker of a top-of-the-line low-flush toilet.

Now imagine what it took to design this toilet.

  • A better siphon – computer simulations were used to determine the most efficient shape. Imagine what the author of those simulations had to know to create the simulations.
  • A better bowl – the glaze acts like a non-stick coating to keep the water flowing.
  • A better tank – a wider valve allows the water to flow faster.

Neat eh?

If it isn’t clear already, the depth of your space is greatly enhanced by the technology available to you through other creatives.

The modest toilet owes its lineage to the ancient Egyptians, the Romans and many people since then (see the box below). Creation then is not one person’s discovery, but one person that builds on the people before them.

* * *

History of the Toilet
Believe it or not, it was only a hundred and fifty years ago that people emptied their chamber pots outside the window. The toilet (and the sewer system) makes city living possible. For a fascinating history see

* * *

To the Sewers and the Beyond

As I was looking at the rough-in I imagined following that pipe down to the sewers which spiders out across the city and at some point returns to a sewage waste treatment plant. What an incredible system!

I unpacked my new low-flush toilet, read the instructions, and decided to check the measurements. My toilet required a standard distance of 12” from the rough-in to the wall. I measured mine… it was a baffling 11”.

I looked on in despair trying to will it to fit, but unless I wanted to move the rough-in or the wall, it wasn’t going to happen. Sadly, I had no choice but to put everything back.

There are always setbacks when you decide to delve deep into your creative space. It takes practice and discipline to develop the skills, knowledge, and experience to create. Ten years is about the time it takes to become “expert”.

While this seems daunting, it reveals the key behind creativity. Joy must be taken in the journey of going deeper and deeper. If it is important enough to you, then you’ll be ready to start now, play now, dig now, and nothing can stop you.

I put the old toilet back, returned the new toilet, so I could order a new 10” toilet.

Once I got over the disappointment, I realized with a little glee that I had plumbed the mysteries of the toilet and that has a reward all of its own.

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
HUMAN Venture Coaching

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.

Riddle Answer

If you have not yet looked at the riddle, then go no further! The riddle can be found by clicking here. I’ve even put the article further down the page so you don’t accidentally see anything. You have been warned.

* * *

You’ll notice that the hint to the first riddle is the second riddle. What is interesting is that most people easily solve the second riddle. The clan leader, to avoid causing the bridge to collapse, must separate his army into four smaller divisions and attack the castle from all four bridges. Each bridge will be able to hold up the smaller divisions while still allowing the clan leader to bring the full force of his army to bear on the castle.

What people don’t always immediately see is that the solution to the second riddle solves the first riddle. If I were to draw out both problems using the following crude diagram… the answer becomes more obvious.

If firing one laser will destroy the healthy cells on the way to the tumor, then an elegant solution would be to split the beam of radiation into multiple weaker beams and fire it at the tumour from different angles. The weaker beam won’t damage (nearly as much) the healthy cells, but when the beams converge on the tumour, it will be strong enough to destroy the tumour.

This might not be the only answer, but you have to admit, it’s pretty clever.

Now, what does have to do with anything other than teasing our brains?

I saw this riddle in a psychology textbook (called The Adaptive Mind… I think?). This ability to find solutions to a particular problem by reframing the problem or by finding solutions in other fields is a type of associative or “lateral” thinking. Creative people are often able to associate two totally unrelated ideas… just like in these two riddles.

Of course, lateral thinking by itself will not help you if you don’t have some basic idea of how radiation works. And it will definitely not help you patent and implement the technology! There has to be depth to your understanding as well.

This leads to part 2 of “How BIG is your creative space?” which will come out in the new year. Look for it then.

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
HUMAN Venture Coaching

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.