How to spark inner creativity: Julie Burstein at TED2012

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Julie Burstein is waving a pot at us. She is a fan of pottery, it turns out, and she starts off her talk by describing the Raku tradition, generally found in Japanese tea ceremonies. What’s particularly wonderful about Raku, she says, is both the speed at which pots are made and the fact that any resulting imperfections are cherished. This, she says, has provided a useful lesson for her in her career as a radio producer, as she gets to play with the tension between what she can control and what she has to let go. “That tension happens all the time, whether I’m creating a radio show or just at home, negotiating with my two teenage sons.”

When it came to writing her book, Burstein realized that the steps were reversed. “I realized creativity grows out of everyday experiences more often than we might think, including letting go.”

And with that, she attempts to smash her pot into tiny pieces on the stage. Predictably, it doesn’t break, which the audience, equally predictably, thoroughly enjoys. But it all still goes towards her larger point: creativity often comes from brokenness.

If there’s one thing Burstein has learned over the years of producing the arts and culture radio show Studio 360, it’s that telling stories is the best way to learn about empathy. So now she tells of four qualities she believes help us all when looking to embrace our own creativity:


“So many artists speak about just paying attention to what’s happening around them. That experience is the first thing we need to embrace,” she says, before describing a conversation with filmmaker Mira Nair, who talked of being brought up in a small town in India. When the exotic, chaotic Jatra folk theater came to town,that was when Nair knew she wanted to get up and perform. “I love that story,” says Burstein. “Mira Nair was ready to open up to what it sparked in her and it led her down the path to become an award-winning filmmaker.”


Burstein tells the story of novelist Richard Ford, who was diagnosed with severe dyslexia as a child. Rather than be downcast, downtrodden and dismayed, however, Ford taught himself to see the advantages of dyslexia and to appreciate all the qualities of language, not just its cognitive aspects. So what that he had to read really slowly; he wasn’t disabled. And as Burstein points out, it’s hardly done the Pulitzer Prize-winning author a disservice. He didn’t have to overcome dyslexia; he had to learn from it, to hear the music in language.


As a young artist, Richard Serra went to live in Florence, and then took a trip to Madrid to look at the famous 1656 Diego Velàzquez painting Las Meninas. As he was wont to do, the artist had included himself in the picture, looking out from the canvas as if to paint the portrait of the viewer. It was, Serra remembers in an audio clip, a pivotal moment, in which he realized he would never himself be able to be a painter. And with that, he went back to Florence and dumped all his paintings in the Arno. Burstein points out the insanity of this act: he looked at a painting by a guy who’d been dead for 300 years and threw all his work in the river! But we know there’s a happy ending to this story: Serra might have had to let go of painting, but he certainly didn’t have to let go of art. “In sculpture Serra is able to do what he couldn’t do in painting,” she says. “He makes us the subject of his art.” It’s true, too, you know.


“In order to create, we have to stand in that space between what we see in the world and what we hope for,” says Burstein. “Looking squarely at rejection, at heartbreak, at war, at death.” Tough space. She goes on to describe the experience of photographer Joel Meyerowitz, a New Yorker who photographed the World Trade Center at many times and lights, but particularly in the nine months after its destruction on 9/11. This powerful story of Meyerowitz’ personal campaign to capture a record of this historical event–and his own evolving thought process in learning to see the inherent beauty emerge from devastation. The idea that nature in time erases a wound and transforms an event really hits home.

Burstein describes meeting Meyerowitz recently and telling him how much she admired his passionate obstinacy. Apparently, he laughed, agreed that he’s stubborn, but then added that what’s more important is a sense of “passionate optimism.” Sounds like a TED theme, all right.

In closing, Burstein reverts to her pottery. She shows a picture of a 100-year-old Japanese tea bowl, which someone had clearly broken at one point. But, the person who glued it back together chose to emphasize the cracks with gold lacquer. For Burstein, “the bowl is more beautiful now having been broken than when it was first made. We can look at those cracks; they tell the story we all live, of creation and destruction, control and letting go, of picking up the pieces and making something new.”


Ken Robinson: At the end, you talked about everyone being creative whether scientist, teacher, parent. Creativity is too often associated with the arts. I wonder if you might say something about that. In your book, why do you focus specifically on the arts?

Julie Burstein: We want to look at where art and real life combine. So many of the people who come in, we looked at how creativity is a part of everything we do. The arts heighten it and allow us to look at it in a different way. But creativity is everything from cooking dinner to a pulminologist drawing on knowledge and pulling it together.

Seth Godin: If failure is not an option, neither is success. Innovation is just repeated failure til you come up with something that works. Part of what Julie is pointing out is there is a pattern. And if there is a pattern to creative people, it means they must have something in common. It’s a mistake to think “they’re creative; I can’t be.”