director Blog: “Creativity is Subtraction”

“Creativity is Subtraction”

I have been thinking a lot about a book my son gave me called Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon and how it relates to our work here at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wildlife agent

“Creativity is Subtraction,” Kleon tells us, and it doesn’t seem to make sense at first. I mean, think back to grade school, you just had to have the 64-count box of crayons. The 8-pack was just not good enough.

But, think about it some more. With the 64-count, what do you color an orange? Do you use Orange, maybe Burnt Orange, Yellow Orange, Tan, Red Orange, Burnt Sienna, Bittersweet?

With so many possibilities, you sit there unsure what to do. Having so many options is actually paralyzing.

Meanwhile, your buddy with eight crayons just used basic Orange, maybe added some tinting with plain old Red,  had time to draw a really good fruit, then finished way before you and went to play. Austin Kleon’s point is that by limiting choice we don’t constrain creativity – we empower it.

The same thing happens when we approach conservation.  All the wild life, and all the habitats they occupy, are a limitless palette with which to paint.  And our first instinct is to paint with all of them. 

But it can paralyze us. There are just so many species we have to care for.

So we are developing a process to identify a small number of species within the landscape by which to measure our progress. These “surrogate species,” on which we will focus our resources, will represent other species or aspects of the environment (e.g., water quality, habitat, etc.).

By choosing surrogate species and focusing our efforts, we will unleash our conservation creativity and free ourselves to do our best, most thoughtful work. 

It’s a bit counterintuitive, but it works. Think of what we have accomplished with waterfowl conservation in the Prairie Potholes, which includes parts of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana well as Canada. 

Studying the hen mallard helped us in our work in the Prairie Potholes. Credit: USFWS

Millions of acres conserved; hundreds of partners working together; a way of life preserved for the people working that land. 

The possible palette in the Potholes was about 40-odd species of hunted waterfowl, but the hen mallard who nests in the Prairie Potholes was the one color we started with.

She unlocked our creativity and put us on a path to success. 

And not just for waterfowl, but for thousands of other species who depend on the same habitat. 

I guess our parents probably knew what they were doing when they just bought us the 8-pack of crayons, even if the 64-pack had the box with the cool crayon sharpener on it.

I’ll have to give mine a call and thank them for freeing my inner artist.

I think tomorrow’s Service employees will thank us for the same thing. For giving them a palatte of conservation colors that unleashes rather than paralyzes creativity.

Comments (Comment Moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until approved.)
WI Steele's Gravatar I agree with the statement "Creativity is Subtraction". It is a valid statement that applies to habitat conservation very well. When you have so many choices, it can be overwhelming and costly. In the example of the 64 color box, some crayons are used up quickly and some are not used at all. The solution is to choose key signature colors that are common to the majority of species, therefore more effectively cover the majority of species.
# Posted By WI Steele | 5/23/13 10:56 AM
Cathy Pearson's Gravatar Well said! I'm interested to read the boook now.

I really think though it was our teachers who asked for the 8 count of crayons on the supply lists; it was our parents who insisted we have the 64 count! So thank a teacher!

By the way, my 74 year old mom still loves to color and always has :o)
# Posted By Cathy Pearson | 5/24/13 1:09 PM
Kate Blough's Gravatar This is a well written article and exemplifies what my old counterparts in the Army use to say: "KIS" Keep It Simple". There is a lot to be said for simplicity and you can rarely go wrong with a simple approach. I look forward to seeing this project unfold and the results of working smarter instead of harder!
# Posted By Kate Blough | 5/29/13 8:36 AM
Bob Altman's Gravatar Creativity IS NOT subtraction when coloring the orange with 8 crayons rather than 64 - you can be more creative with 64. However, the authors point is reducing creativity outside coloring the orange because the paralysis of choice and time consumed on decisions results in less time/creativity to do other things. We all have experienced that - being overwhelmed and not knowing where to start. But, what about the consequences of the "keep it simple approach"? The author does not bring up that side of the equation, which is not fairly representing the concept. With surrogate species, the expressed desire is to use them to represent the ecosystem/habitat etc. Biologically we all know that is not possible, but we need shortcuts due to resources etc. However, the trend is using a single species rather than suite of species that cover a range of desired conditions (the PIF approach). Not really much more work (monitor them together) and a sounder scientific approach.
# Posted By Bob Altman | 3/16/14 12:50 PM
Last updated: August 31, 2011