Monday, August 15, 2016

Using Our Whole Self

You know I'm intrigued by a speaker when I attend more than one of their sessions. At the recent IAJGS Conference on Jewish genealogy, I made sure to stop by several sessions offered by Ron Arons. Ron is a frequent speaker and writer with a broad range of interests including dissecting underlying process. As my interests seem to follow on some parallel tracks, I was hopeful that I might pick up something of relevance to me.

Ron taught a session on Mind Maps for Genealogy. A mind map is an alternative to an outline or a spreadsheet for organizing information. Spreadsheets work well for structured data while a mind map can work for either structured or unstructured data. It is a visual tool designed for the non-linear visual thinker.

A mind map begins in the center with a central theme. Ron gave us an example of his plan for 2016 and rather than record his plan, I began to design my own. I had reading, blog writing, travel for both business and pleasure, painting, working on a book, genealogy for self and consulting for others and public speaking as spokes around the central hub of plan. I began to branch them out to identify more specific components. Then I looked at how they connected to each other. An outline would have each discrete subject, but the mind map acknowledges that often these subjects are not discrete, but rather interrelated. I read topical literature relevant to my travels or on the topics I am exploring in my artwork so reading and travel would be connected as well as reading and artwork. I speak about my artwork and genealogy so there would be additional spokes from speaking on topics which in turn would attach to the artwork and genealogy nodes. Travel leads to artwork and often is tied to genealogy research. Soon I had an octopus of a map. My next step would be to link related nodes.

Now I was beginning to see the connection to genealogy where things are often not discrete. If you are searching for when someone came to the United States there are multiple places that you can search. Census records may reveal that information as could oral history or naturalization records and the data may conflict so you can use the mind map to try to reconcile the sources to arrive at what you believe to be the best data.

What name or names did they go by? You can identify names used from different sources then lay them out in chronological order to see how they evolved over time. Maybe you have a node for transcription errors so you can isolate those that were the invention of a transcriber rather than a name actually employed by the person.

It occurs to me that I do a similar approach when I work out how to paint story in my artwork. In a session that I taught last week, I talked about how oral history was reflected in painting the story of a woman who was on the Kindertransport. She had spoken of the Red Cross letters she received from her parents, the fact that you didn't write much because other eyes were watching and the names Mutti (mother) and Vati(father) that were found in the letters. If I were to do that as a mind map I would have a spoke for visual imagery on which I would list those elements and others. Another spoke might list possible names for the painting. Still another would list the emotions that she felt. All of those elements have to come together in a painting, tying imagery together into an underlying story.

Ron shared information on several programs for mind mapping such as freemind and xmind and I plan to take them for a test drive.

The second topic he spoke on was Critical and Creative Thinking for Genealogists. As an artist who had a long career in finance, I rely on both skill sets so am interested in this topic. His point was that genealogy requires both critical thinking (analytic, convergent, vertical, judgment, detail focused) and creative thinking (generative, diffuse, subjective, possibility, yes and). Not only does it require both, but they need to partner up.

He noted that studies have found that there are myths about creativity that simply aren't true. We often are told that some people are born with it and it can't be learned. In fact in The Innovators' DNA by Dyer et al they note that 30% comes from genetics, but the rest can be learned. Steve Jobs posited that creativity is connecting things. Picasso noted that good artists copy, great artists steal. Kirby Ferguson in a Ted talk speaks to the idea of copying, transforming and combining.

Creativity takes motivation, being unafraid of failure, curiosity, openness, patience, deferring judgment and playfulness. A big part of creativity is asking questions and challenging conventional thought, also a big part of Jewish heritage. In fact Chief Rabbi Sacks notes that there is was no Hebrew word that meant obey when modern Hebrew was created.

When we apply these skills to genealogy we need to avoid questions that are too broad or narrow. They need to be focused, but also open-ended. Sometimes we need to expand the playing field and explore related people to find our answers or imagine alternate possibilities.Ron suggested that we work on several different problems at one time. That allows us to interleave, make connections between different subjects, problems and approaches. The more knowledge we have on different subjects, the more we open ourselves to creative thinking.

Documents are puzzle pieces and just like puzzle pieces they have multiple data points (edges). The more puzzle pieces, the more connections are possible.
Adam Grant in the book Originals writes that we are more conceptual when we are young, but rely more on experiential creativity which involves tinkering and collaborating as we get older.

What Ron said rang true with my experience. I would add that sometimes we need to unlearn some things to open ourselves up to creativity. It operates under different rules than the productivity culture we absorb in our analytic corporate world. And it has its own schedule and won't accommodate ours. We need to create a fertile environment in which to welcome creativity into our life.

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