Tina Seelig

tina seelig

I teach Creativity and Innovation at Stanford. I help people get ideas out of their head and into the world. Ask me anything!

My short bio: Professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford’s School of Engineering, and executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. In 2009, I was awarded the Gordon Prize from the National Academy of Engineering for my work in engineering education. I love helping people unleash their entrepreneurial spirit through innovation and creativity. So much so that I just published a new book about it, called Insight Out: Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Into the World.

My Proof: Imgur

UPDATE: Thank you so much to everyone for your questions. I have to run to finish up the semester with my students, but let’s stay connected on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tseelig, or Medium: https://medium.com/@tseelig. Hope to see you there.

Do you have any tips on navigating through procrastination and burn-out?

Procrastination is interesting… You can mine it to determine why you aren’t doing what you say to yourself that you want to accomplish. There is always something getting in the way. By being honest with yourself, you unlock reasons for your lack of action. Some questions to ask… Are you really motivated to achieve the goal, or is it someone else’s goal for you? Or, if you reach that goal, what other opportunities will it unlock?

What’s the worst idea you’ve seen that went on to become the most successful?

There are seeds of something interesting in all ideas… One of my favorite exercises it ask teams to come up with the worst idea for a particular challenges – such as restaurant ideas, a family vacation, or ways to save water during the drought. The, I give that terrible idea to another team and that team has to turn the idea into something amazingly great… They do so all the time! The terrible idea unlocks some really interesting opportunities. I write about this exercise in detail in What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20.

They say: “Just start writing”. Do you agree?

You bet!! I throw out most of my early writing for all my books. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable. It was a way to warm up my brain and to get the ideas flowing. The first ideas are always incremental, then the next wave gets more interesting, and then I am on a roll.

What advice do you have for dealing with the frustration when inevitable blocks in the creative process occur? And another question, not an easy one… what would you say is the best way to deal with failed ideas?

I love questions about failure! Nobody wants to fail, but is is inevitable when you are doing something that you haven’t done before – or that nobody has done before. The key is to learn from each failure and treat it as data. Scientists do this all the time – the data you get propels you forward. If you don’t mine your failures for meaningful data, you are doomed to repeat them.

The hardest bit is to overcome the emotional attachment to a doomed idea…

Yes, but if you approach the first trial as an experiment, then all results are good. Folks get wedded to their ideas too early.

What are some examples of the best ideas you’ve fostered?

I don’t keep track of anybody’s ideas besides my own… It is up to each to us use our creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship skills to bring out ideas to fruition… I have had many students go on to do remarkable things, such as starting Instagram, as well as those who become neurosurgeons and educators. I don’t take credit for their accomplishments, but am delighted that they used what they learned in our program to manifest their own dreams.

What’s missing in Ecosystems to engage high school students in looking for opportunities in Entrepreneurship?

LOTS! The first thing is open ended problems without a right answer. They need to be given opportunities to follow their own interests and come up with unique solutions. I am a huge fan of Don Wettrick in Indiana who teaches high school… He gives his students a chance to pick projects of their own choosing and then provides them with tools to tackle them.

If creativity can be improved, whats your favorite individual method for exercising the creative muscle?

Creativity is applying your imagination to address a challenge. This requires both motivation and experimentation. So, the best way to improve your creativity is to tap into your motivation (no matter how small it is) and to begin experimenting. This can be as easy as seeing how you feel after getting different amount so sleep, or how your colleagues respond to you when you greet them in different ways. These small experiments tune up your creative problem solving abilities.

There are many books on unleashing creativity, how is yours different than the others?

This new book provides a clear framework on going from inspiration to implementation, following the entire pathway from the seeds of an idea all the way to bringing it to the world. I’d love to know what you think, and if you find it useful. πŸ™‚

The million dollar question: Can creativity be taught?

YOU BET!!! That is what I spend my time doing, with remarkable results. In fact, that is the theme of my new book, Insight Out…. It is predicated on the fact that we need a crystal clear set of definitions and relationships for the creative process in order to teach, learn, and master these skills. This is similar to math, physics, and music…. It is also something we NEED to teach everyone.

What’s today’s most common mistake when putting an idea into practice?

The model I present in Insight Out describes a series of steps from ideas to actions. Each step requires more effort than the one before.

Imagination requires engaging and envisioning what might be different. Creativity is applying your imagination to solve a problem. This requires motivation and experimentation. Innovation is applying creativity to come up with unique solutions. This requires focus and reframing. And, entrepreneurship is applying innovations to bring the to the world. This requires persistence and inspiring others.

The place where people usually fail is not having the attitude needed to move through this process. You need to be motivated, focused, and persistent. Without this, you don’t experiment, reframe, and inspire others. Hope that helps.

Any tips for maintaining momentum and motivation for a long term project/team?

Break the project into small parts and celebrate each of those milestones. I do that when writing a book, which takes over a year. I celebrate each page, each chapter, and each section of the book. Eventually, you get to have a launch party! πŸ™‚

Many students struggle with articulating their ideas. What might help them to express their ideas?

Expression comes in all different forms. Some students are very verbal, but others are better at expressing their ideas in pictures, or even movement. I like to provide students with the opportunity to present their ideas any way they like.. For example, in my class this quarter the students’ final assignment is to capture what they learned in the course in any way they want. Can’t wait to see what is in store tomorrow!

I write and produce music. Recently I ride a wave of creativity and then hit a block. Where everything I hear everywhere sounds like trash including my work. Then I take time off to cool off and when I return the project seems unmanageable. Any tips to getting past that block?

Blocks are normal for everyone. One valuable tool is to use that time for really focused observation. Active engagement is the first step in all creative endeavors. With focused attention you will see opportunities that you didn’t see when you were actively working on a project. Make notes on what you observe, and to opportunities they unlock. Hope that is helpful.

Do you know of any simple exercises that could be done with elementary aged students?

All the things I teach can easily be used with younger kids. They love opportunities to stretch their imagination. It is honestly embarrassing that this is not taught widely in K-12 schools!

A great simple exercise is to ask kids to pick a problem in their own lives and then give them the opportunity to solve it. This gives them confidence that problems can be solved, and a chance to practice their creative problem solving skills.

I’m a teacher, have taught my courses at high school and college and now want to bring it on-line. I’ve watched, checked and rechecked, no-one has done a site like I want to offer. How do I get off the dime and get it going? I have all the resources, desire and passion but also the fear that it would fail. And take me down with it, or be copied out of existence. HELP, what is the best way to do it?

Sounds like a great idea… I would start with some small experiments to see how it will work and to gauge the response. Look to Sal Khan of the Khan Academy for inspiration. He started very slowly and built his site based on feedback he received. The key is to try something… As mentioned in an earlier comment, the key is to look at your first attempt as an experiment. If it doesn’t work, don’t fret, but learn from the experience and try again. Good luck and have fun!

Do you have a single piece of advice that you tell everyone?

One piece of advice… The proper attitude leads to EFFECTIVENESS and the proper actions lead to INVENTIVENESS. By marrying the two you become effective at bringing innovative ideas to the world.

How do I know the difference between a great idea and a terrible one when everything seems so promising at the start? I find myself getting really excited about something and then I’ll discover a key element that doesn’t work or find that it’s all been done before and lose all my enthusiasm. It gets a little tiring after several cycles of this, but the ideas keep coming.

There is a thin line between a good idea and a bad idea. As mentioned elsewhere in this discussion, it is valuable to do small experiments to test out your ideas before diving into the deep end. I am a fan of the concept of pretotyping, described by Alberto Savoia. It is essentially the process of testing concepts with very simple experiments to determine if you are going in the right direction. You can learn more here: http://www.pretotyping.org/

Dr. Seeling, I have truly enjoyed many of your talks that have come out of the d.school, particularly those that focus around stimulating the creative/innovative environment. While I feel like the corporate environment is miles more accepting of the creative mind than This is a very common complaint… I suggest the following: find other like-minded creative folks in your organization and find ways to work together. Successful projects will inspire others to join in and may influence the culture. Or, if you feel too stifled in the organization, you can leave and find a culture that is a better fit… or start your own! companies is still used more as a buzzword than an actual aspect of corporate culture. What advice would you give to someone who is stuck in a habitat that is strictly concerned with the bottom line?

This is a very common complaint… I suggest the following: find other like-minded creative folks in your organization and find ways to work together. Successful projects will inspire others to join in and may influence the culture. Or, if you feel too stifled in the organization, you can leave and find a culture that is a better fit… or start your own!

What is in your opinion the most important thing when trying to get ideas into products? What makes someone success and someone else fail?

Entrepreneurship requires persistence and inspiring others… The key is that you need to work really hard on all the business logistics AND make sure to get others on board. You need to inspire others to join your team, invest in your venture, spread the word, and buy your product. This is the hallmark of a great entrepreneur.

Ideas come out of my head all the time, for books, pictures, projects, photos, businesses, ways to improve things, lots of stuff, so much I feel overwhelmed and just ignore the majority of them then get annoyed when I see someone’s done the same thing a year later, what can I do to take advantage of this rather than just feeling deluged all the time? Also, I have an extremely dull office job and have always wondered if spending so much time doing what people call mind-numbing work can literally have that effect, I wondered what you thought?

Your comment is so common… So many people have ideas and don’t do anything with them. I describe how to move from ideas to actions in Insight Out… The key is moving systematically from imagination, to creativity, innovation, and then entrepreneurship. The steps are easy to follow, starting with the seed of an idea and then watering it. With the right attitudes and actions you bring it to life. I promise!

How do you think up ideas? Do you have a routine? A muse? Do you work in silence or with music blasting? Do you think in words, text, music …? What’s your favorite medium for getting your ideas out of your head?

The key is paying carefully attention and then envisioning what might be different. That is the first step of the “Invention Cycle.” When I am finally ready to write, I do so in absolute silence. This allows me to focus on the topic and look at it from different angles.

How do you test your students? What makes one qualified for this sort of job?

Good question… I don’t test my students. In fact, I tell them to never ask about their course grade. πŸ™‚

I want the students to be internally motivated. I tell them that I expect them to put as much work into the course as I do, and that they should “never miss an opportunity to be fabulous.” Guess what? It works! They are waiting for someone to give them this freedom to tap into their own motivation, not respond to an external motivation.

I have often thought I should jot my ideas down or otherwise record them as soon as I have them. Do you do that?

The older I get, the more I have to write down. πŸ™‚

Yes, it is really important to capture your ideas in words or pictures. This allows you to return to them, see patterns, and to connect and combine them in interesting ways.

Is there a point where you just have to stop someone from destroying their life with one bad idea after another?

This is a really personal decision, not one you make for someone else. We each need to decide how persistent we will be when faces with wave after wave of failure and disappointment. Some people eventually accomplish remarkable things after pushing through endless obstacles, and other give up much earlier. This decision is based on your level of motivation, persistence, and your commitment to a specific outcome.

Do you have a reading list you recommend your students (apart from your book obviously)? If not could you post some suggestions of must reads?Β Also, generally what sort of background do most of your students come from?

There are lots of inspiring books on creativity… Some of my favorites is The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley. It talks about the creative process at IDEO… My students come from all over the world, and all different backgrounds.

I am a strong believer that all learning is experiential. Therefore most of my teaching is not from books but from exercises. In my new book, Insight Out, I include a set of exercises at the end of each chapter.

How much do you get from book sales?

It depends on how many books are sold, of course. Authors typically get an advance when they sign the book contract, and then have to earn out that advance before they ever see any more income… The typical royalty rate is 10 – 15% of the book price. Hope that helps.

“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” You seem to be an educator, and you have won some awards in teaching and eduction, great. You’re an entrepreneur who has simply told other aspiring entrepreneurs what to do. But can you share with us some actual accomplishments you have offered the world (as your book speaks on) outside of telling people how to do things? What have you actually done?

I think that teaching is pretty important, and I am honored to have the opportunity to create learning experiences for people of all ages… My most recent work is teaching at San Quentin prison, helping inmates learn how to start entrepreneurial ventures when they are released… Besides teaching, I am a neuroscientist by training, have started a couple of companies, have written 17 books, worked as a strategy consultant, and designed multimedia games for kids. Does that help?

Generally speaking, what do you think is the biggest impediment against innovation (whether at a person’s level or at a societal level)?

Innovation is apply creativity to come up with a unique solution to a problem… The impediment is not focusing and reframing. This process allows you to come up with really fresh ideas, as opposed to “creative” ideas that are new to you but not new to the world.