Michael Ray: An interview by Bob Morris

Michael Ray


Michael Ray was selected to be the first John G. McCoy-Banc One Corporation Professor of Creativity and Innovation and of Marketing  (Emeritus) at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. He is a specialist in new paradigm business, creativity, innovation, and marketing communications. He has produced more than 100 publications including ten books such as Creativity in Business with Rochelle Myers, The Path of the Everyday Hero with Lorna Catford-Tarcher, The Creative Spirit with Daniel Goleman and Paul Kaufman (the companion book to the PBS series of the same name, inspired by his Stanford course “Personal Creativity in Business”), and most recently, The Highest Goal.

I conducted this interview in 2008 for KL@TG magazine, published by Dallas-based Thomas Group. If anything, Ray’s responses are more relevant and more valuable today than they were then.

Morris: When did you begin teaching the “Personal Creativity in Business” course at Stanford and to what extent have your perspectives on creativity since changed over the years?

Ray: I began teaching the course with Rochelle Myers in the 1979-80 academic year. But I really started my work in creativity with research during my undergraduate and Ph.D. in social psychology work at Northwestern and in teaching courses there in Advertising, Advertising Management and Advertising and Communication Research. My concepts of creativity changed dramatically from the Northwestern times and my early years at Stanford to our starting to teach the creativity course at the business school. The main change was from seeing creativity as a predecessor of innovation and an issue of getting ideas and solving problems to seeing creativity as personal development and bringing out one’s inner resources. I’ve become convinced that this kind of personal creativity is the key to dealing with a new world that is constantly emerging in business and all walks of life. In fact, I am convinced that we are talking about a paradigm of creativity.

Morris: Many people insist, “I’m not creative.” Your response?

Ray: We assume in our work that everyone is creative, but we are using a different definition of creativity than is implied when people say they are not creative. We believe that people are being creative if they are bringing out their highest inner resources to improve their lives and those around them. Those who are living from their core, and doing what they are destined to do, are being creative, no matter how mundane their work or profession might seem.

Often when claiming that they are not creative, they mean that they are not artists, musicians, writers, athletes, or any other media types demonstrating creativity. Or they know someone who always seems to have a lot of ideas and know that they can’t match that.

We all have a tendency to idolize those who create what we see in the media. I think it’s better to use these people as models rather than idols, especially when these people have aspects of their lives that are similar to us. Then we can take their inspiration as we go on to be creative in our own way in our own lives and companies.

Morris: Although creativity in business is highly desirable, is it not at least as important to think creatively in one’s personal life?

Ray: The more I do this creative work the more I realize that business is about people in groups being creative in their own way. If business creativity does not allow individual development, then it isn’t sustainable. But if business creativity means people bringing out their best and developing that, then amazing things can happen—not only for the business but also more importantly for the individual and the surrounding community.

We encourage people to bring their creativity to bear on six personal challenges—discovering purpose and career, dealing with time and stress issues, developing and maintaining good relationships, achieving personal/professional balance or synergy in life, finding true prosperity, and bringing one’s own creativity into the business and life. Unless people are continually dealing with these challenges, they are not bringing out their best and are not of much use to anyone, particularly themselves and their organizations.

Morris: In your opinion, what must be done to create a workplace environment in which creative thinking is not only encouraged but also indeed nourished and supported?

Ray: When I’m asked that question, one of the first things that comes to mind is that old line about breakfast: “The chicken is involved but the pig is committed.” I believe that you have to have long-term commitment to create creativity in an organization. In all the organizations I know that developed a culture of creativity, someone, often a small group of people, made a commitment to people development in the context of enriching their business. And just like the pig and the bacon, this can be a difficult process at times, that’s why the commitment is necessary.

At the same time, you must set up measurement of results and celebrate small victories as you go along. I have observed that any creativity initiative gets about an eighteen-month grace period. If there aren’t any tangible results in a year and a half, despite the strongest commitment, someone in the organization is going to start questioning the whole program. But that’s not all. In one of my articles in which I define “creativity in business” as individual enlightenment within organizational transformation, I mention six heuristics for developing a creative culture:

1. Work with leaders within the organization.

2. Develop creativity within a vital initiative.

3. Make creativity a long-term commitment with short-term payouts.

4. Develop individual creativity within a relevant working group.

5. Deal with deep personal challenges.

6. Keep an eye on the prize of overall organizational objectives and world effect.

Morris: How does creative thinking differ from innovative thinking?

Ray: Someone once said that innovation is a done idea. I agree. I believe that creativity is the individual development and conceptualization and that innovation in an organizational sense is implementing ideas and intentions that come from that creativity. So in a sense, creativity is more a leadership function and innovation is more a managerial function.

I believe that if one can understand one’s false personality or ego, then they can develop self-awareness and the manifesting of that self-awareness is leadership. Such a leader sets up the mechanisms within which creativity can flourish, and managers turn this into innovations in the marketplace and society.

But you should take all this with a grain of salt, since in real life creativity and innovation are intertwined and so are leaders and managers. It’s never as clear-cut as I’m making it sound. It’s, as you know, much more dynamic, chaotic and fascinating in the way it plays out. That’s why people have to operate more from their inner essence; it’s the other constant that copes with the legendary constant of change.

Morris: In Creativity in Business co-authored with Rochelle Myers, you and she suggest that in order to understand the essence of business as art, it is necessary to “get to know your inner resource.” How?

Ray: That’s a wonderful question, because it inspires rich answers, enough for a book or two. Rochelle Myers and I developed our course to answer that question and wrote that book. There are a few steps to take that will not only help you to know your inner resource but also to bring it out into the world.

The most important thing you can do individually and organizationally is to pay attention to your own creativity. Sports psychologists call this muscle memory or paying attention to your perfect performance. In your own life you can notice when you do something that works right for you and celebrate it. The more you do this, the greater the probability that you will act creatively in future situations.

You can pay attention to your own creativity by doing what we call “live-withs” in our work. A live-with is a heuristic or generalization for learning and discovery such as “Have No Expectations,”  “Pay Attention,” “Ask Dumb Questions,” “See with Your Heart,” or “Be Ordinary.” As you can tell, these live-withs can be challenging. But if you live with each of them for any period of time, such as a week, and then reflect upon them in writing or verbally with another person and get feedback, you will notice shifts in your behavior toward a more creative life.

We tie each live-with with each of four tools of creativity (i.e. having faith in your creativity, developing an absence of negative internal judgment, precise observation, and penetrating questions) and six life challenges (i.e. finding your purpose, dealing with time and stress, developing generative relationships, creating synergy and balance in your life, finding true prosperity, and bringing your individual creativity into the world).

Both individually and organizationally, the live-with “Ask Dumb Questions” can propel people into penetrating questions, which in turn can change the way you do business for the better. And “See with Your Heart” can transform difficult relationships into productive ones.

You can discover and manifest your creativity by being conscious of your own creativity through the technique of live-withs, particularly when applied to the four tools and six challenges. Also remember to share this with others and get feedback so that creativity is in the air, especially within your organization.

Morris: What are the most common barriers to creativity and how can they be overcome?

Ray: What is a barrier to one person is a springboard for another. And the thing that makes the difference from one person or another is how they deal with and are affected by their inner voice of blame and criticism, which we call the VOJ or Voice of Judgment.

Yes I can list all sorts of organizational forms and cultural issues that can get in the way of our accessing our inner creativity and bringing it out in our world. And we can use all kinds of approaches that can transform the organization. But unless we have developed a sense of our Self (who we are at core, at our highest) and our Work (the purpose of our existence, the gift that we have to give to the world) and use that to deal with the inner obstacle, we can’t sustain creativity in the face of the chaos of the world.

Do this by using the approaches that are mentioned in my last answer and in our books to develop a sense of your own creativity and how you can manifest it in the world. Then deal with the VOJ by observing how this inner voice can ruin every part of your life by telling you that you are not good enough, that people and organizational obstacles are impossible, that your ideas are worthless or wrong, and that you are constantly making or in danger of making mistakes. You can then overcome and turn into breakthroughs the obstacles that are bound to come.

Once you get a sense of what this inner VOJ is saying, you can get angry at it and shout at it (inwardly for most of the time), “Get the hell out of my life!” You’ll notice that as you continue to do this, the VOJ will begin to retreat. And when you do hear it, you might try to see how ridiculous it is. You can ridicule it, realizing that it is not your voice speaking but voices mostly from your childhood that are inappropriate now.

And of course you can really overcome the obstacles to creativity and the VOJ by leaping over them to listen to the voices of your own objective intelligence, your inner creative essence, your Self and your Work. Then you will be living from reality and possibility and you will find that your VOJ disappears and the obstacles are just stops on the way to the larger things you can achieve in your life.

You can deal with fears, the extreme form of VOJ, also by paying attention to them and moving toward them and seeing what is really there.

Morris: From your perspective, what does it mean to be “in the world but not of it”?

Ray: I think that that phrase from the Bible is one of the best definitions of “creative.” When you are creative, you are in the world in the sense that you see what it is and know its problems and possibilities. But you are not of the world in the sense that you are not caught up in external things and are coming from your inner resources to create approaches that are yours alone and have potential to change the world.

When you are living with the exhortation or live-with “Be in the World But Not of It,” you experience your connection with all and the possibility of co-creativity and collaboration with those around you. You see an oneness in the world as opposed to warfare, even with those who are your enemies. You are not of the world of conflict, even though you have the strength to deal with it and turn it around. You have compassion in the sense of seeing the highest in yourself and then seeing that in others.

Living with this exhortation stimulates the best of your analytical skills, deepens your intuition, eliminates destructive competition, develops your skills and creativity serially and painlessly, and develops concentration, efficiency, accuracy, and humor.

And that’s what a creative life is all about: making it a work of art.

Morris: Now please respond to some questions about your most recently published book, The Highest Goal. What prompted you to write it?

Ray: Two reasons.  First I hadn’t written much about our creative work for about ten years and we learned so much during that time, especially with our work outside of the universities with business and other organizations. I wanted to give this learning to the world. Second, I began to realize that our students were getting something beyond just creativity; even in the expanded way we were offering it. Specifically they realized their lives were about making a connection to some higher power, moving toward enlightenment, getting into flow with the Tao—however they stated it, it was about being in the state of creativity all the time. I saw that once they realized that this somewhat spiritual goal was what their life was all about; they could draw on this when they faced obstacles and challenges and celebrate their breakthroughs in terms of what it meant for their highest goal.

Morris: To what extent does this book reflect what you have learned from your students at Stanford over the years

Ray: I learned about this secret for living that is the highest goal from my students and from participants in our organizational work. They also forced me to see new ways of presenting the material and for enriching my own life in the process. When I first wrote what became The Highest Goal, I wrote a much larger book that my publisher said, “That’s not a book. It’s a course.” I still have that larger book and my teachers (people who are my former students who teach the creativity material and are still my teachers in so many ways) use it in their teaching of creativity in business. I may publish it someday in that form or just offer it as part of all our teaching in the world.

Morris: In your opinion, throughout history, who are the best examples of those who have achieved “the highest goal”?

Ray: The beauty of the highest goal is that you never really achieve it in the lasting sense. You get only glimpses of it when you have breakthroughs or are in flow. And then you begin to string them together. So I know what you are looking for, but I think you should take my suggestions with a big grain of salt. I feel more confident in talking about people I know personally than I do about historical figures.

But I have done a lot of reading about several historical figures that makes me think that they achieved the highest goal in the sense of being motivated by attaining it and being guided by it throughout their life.

I come from Illinois and I’ve been exposed to the best and the worst of Abraham Lincoln since I was a child. I think he would be one example.  Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals shows how he saw the highest in his worst enemies and kept going in the face of tremendous obstacles, for instance. Harold Holzer’s book Lincoln As I Knew Him with statements from Lincoln’s friends and enemies also gives a thorough picture that supports that selection.

In the same way but for different reasons I think that Marcus Aurelius, Leonardo Da Vinci, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa would all be candidates. I could mention some in recent times too. I think the football coach Bill Walsh was such a person. After he died, the statements by his friends and especially by his opponents convinced me that he went beyond success and competition and went out of his way to help people become themselves in the largest sense, even if it meant doing things that seemed negative or difficult.

I also give a number of examples in The Highest Goal of living friends, students and speakers who I think are on the path of the highest goal. But as I so often say, “What do I really know?

Morris: Ernest Becker once observed that there is one form of death that can be denied: That which occurs when we become with preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us. Do you agree? Can this concern prevent us from achieving our “highest goal”?

Ray: Yes, I agree. Concern with outer expectations pulls one away from one’s highest and deepest resources and the highest goal. Notice that we use and suggest the live-withs “Have No Expectations” and “Be Ordinary;” the latter because if you live from yourself as opposed to outer expectations you can be ordinary and become extraordinary.

At the same time, when we live from compassion we can also respect and see the highest in others and learn from them. This is another dimension of the highest goal: To have the discrimination to go beyond the surface negativity of people and see the goodness and wisdom they have to offer.

Morris: Here’s my favorite passage from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

Learn from the people

Plan with the people

Begin with what they have

Build on what they know

Of the best leaders

When the task is accomplished

The people will remark

We have done it ourselves.

Please discuss the relevance of this excerpt to a business leader’s efforts of pursuing to achieve her or his “highest goal.”

Ray: I love that verse from Lao Tzu. One way you can look at the highest goal is this ancient Chinese quest to live in the Tao or with the flow of the universe. This is being ordinary again and being in communion with your inner power as well as resonating with the grace that is in each situation.

I recall Jim Collins finding in his research that what he calls fifth level leaders could turn good companies into great ones. These leaders had two defining characteristics. First, they were humble and stayed in the background. Second, they were fiercely dedicated to the task at hand. Sound a bit like Taoism and the quote from Lao Tzu?

In addition, notice the live-with, “Become a Generative Leader.” That is the title of the last chapter of The Highest Goal. A generative leader creates creativity. He or she is generative in the sense that nature is generative: never depletes its endowment, lives on its waste products, destroys in order to create, and is endlessly creative. Again, it is going with the flow, the Tao or more appropriately creatively surfing the waves of change. All of the people I mentioned or implied in the previous answer about historical and current people who I think have achieved or are living with the highest goal were or are, in my opinion, generative leaders. And their beneficial impact on others is immeasurable but admirable.





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