Issue 3

︎A Prepared Mind︎David Caruso and Zorana Ivcevic Pringle︎A Prepared Mind︎David Caruso and Zorana Ivcevic Pringle

Detail of Dawn, Brennen Steines, 2021–2022.
Oil and calcium carbonate on canvas with steel frame, 118” x 81”.

A Prepared Mind

David Caruso and Zorana Ivcevic Pringle

Anxiety and nervousness around artmaking is very common. Much of it stems from the same place—fear of failure—and is entangled with all aspects of our lives. True creativity involves risk, and risk involves desire. How can artists negotiate all these feelings?

“Many people hear the term ‘emotional intelligence’ and still think of the Rorschach test,” says David Caruso, Ph.D., a research affiliate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. “This is a popular idea. But for scientists like us, it’s an intelligence just like any other. It’s a set of hard skills.” His colleague, Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, Ph.D., a senior research scientist and the director of the creativity and emotions lab, agrees: “People who are emotionally intelligent can accurately identify and interpret physical signs and behavior, understand their common causes and consequences, and use this knowledge to regulate and solve emotion-related problems.”

The pandemic has disrupted artists and creative organizations in unimaginable ways. Collaboration, performance, and connectivity have been hindered. Caruso and Ivcevic Pringle discuss how people, with self-awareness and insight, can find their way.

In addition to the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Caruso is a management psychologist who develops and conducts emotional intelligence training around the world. He is Senior Advisor in the Yale College Dean’s Office. He is also the co-founder of Emotional Intelligence (EI) Skills Group. He is the co-author of the Mayer, Salovey, Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT). He and Peter Salovey wrote the practical “how-to” book, The Emotionally Intelligent Manager (Jossey-Bass, 2004), and he is a co-author (with Lisa Rees) of The Leader’s Guide to Solving Challenges with Emotional Intelligence (EI Skills Group, 2018). He has published numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, reviews, and chapters on emotional intelligence. He has spoken to executives and has trained thousands of professionals around the world. David received his Ph.D. in psychology from Case Western Reserve University and was then awarded a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in psychology at Yale University.

Ivcevic Pringle studies the role of emotion and emotion skills in creativity and well-being, as well as how to use the arts (and art-related institutions) to promote emotion and creativity skills. She received funding for her research from the Botin Foundation, Imagination Institute, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Faas Foundation. She has collaborated with colleagues from Denmark, Spain, China, and Croatia and published her research in numerous academic journals. She received the Award for Excellence in Research from the Mensa Education and Research Foundation for her research on emotional intelligence and emotional creativity, as well as the Berlyne Award for Outstanding Early Career Achievement in psychology of aesthetics, creativity, and the arts from Division 10 of the American Psychological Association.

—Alex Zafiris

Detail of Dawn, 2021–2022.
Oil and calcium carbonate on canvas with steel frame, 118” x 81”.

Alex Zafiris: During this pandemic, many of us found ourselves stuck in one place or extremely limited in our actions. With the vaccines, we have more freedom to move around and create new experiences, to encounter luck and chance, but we are forever changed. Do you feel that people’s sense of serendipity has been altered? 

Zorana Ivcevic Pringle: Serendipity sounds like luck, from the outside. And it looks like luck, if you don’t have enough information about the person, what they do, or what is really going on. There is certainly an element of luck within it. However, there are also elements of preparation. A big part of serendipity is a prepared mind; it is more likely to happen to some than others, for example: People who are more open to new experiences. They are present in the world, and can notice things that others might not. 

David Caruso: How do you prepare your mind? How do you become open, especially when under stress? One way to be open to new experiences is through strong emotion management skill. Importantly, emotion management does not mean emotion suppression, closing yourself to these experiences. A lot of people think they always have to be calm, cool, collected, to push everything down, and suppress their emotional experience. That’s not what we’re talking about. It is the ability to stay open to those strong feelings, so that they don’t flood us. In this way we’re able to fully experience emotions and leverage their power, to be awed, inspired and to see things in new and in different ways.

Unrelated to emotional intelligence is our understanding of the “big five” personality traits. There are five, general aspects which describe many of the observable differences and our interpersonal interactions across different people. One of these global traits is openness to experience. If you’re curious, then you find your own luck. It sensitizes you to opportunity. It encourages you to avail yourself of chance encounters. So even in a limited lockdown, you can be a really good observer. Curiosity is an inner quality, which leads to wonder, awe, and interest, and towards more serendipitous encounters.

ZIP: Curious people enjoy trying things, learning new skills, developing hobbies. Even in limiting situations like lockdown, those who are actively engaging with the world will find serendipitous interactions that otherwise might not have happened. 

DC: During lockdown, your personal environment does play a factor. Many of us are incredibly fortunate; we don’t live in fear with high levels of anxiety. It is also important to recognize that good things do not happen to good people. Good things happen to people living in good conditions: Creative, healthy environments, where health is multi-dimensional. Lately I’ve been rereading Henry David Thoreau, and about American Transcendentalism. He was such a good observer. Everyone knows his line, “I have traveled a good deal in Concord.” To me, this means: Be inquisitive about your inner world, and also the outer world. If you really love to travel but have not been able to do so, you can still cultivate that inner quality towards new experiences as a compensatory strategy. Read, browse, and be open.

Emotion management does not mean emotion suppression.︎Emotion management does not mean emotion suppression.︎

ZIP: During the pandemic, our usual ways of interacting with the world disappeared. But we created new ones. We couldn’t do everything, but we could pursue connections with people, even without physical presence. It is important to remind ourselves during this time that humans are resilient. Research shows that, even in the face of traumatic events, the vast majority of us recover quite fast. The first shock of a situation is real, and it is a healthy response to an unhealthy situation. But we find new ways to adapt, and pretty quickly come back to normal ways of thinking, feeling, and being. In my lab, we are studying how people are emotionally experiencing the pandemic. We see an initial spike of negative feelings, like stress and anxiety. But then those go down steadily, and positive feelings steadily increase. This resilience is something to keep in mind, especially as new waves and variants appear. Will life go back to what we knew, or is this change permanent? For humans, change is usually not permanent, and people come back to themselves and their habits after even very significant events.

AZ: How much does anxiety and fear interfere with serendipity? Sometimes magical thinking is occurring, not serendipity. Can you point out the differences between these? And how this might affect creativity?

ZIP: Yes, an overwhelming amount of fear and anxiety closes us down. We no longer have the resources of engaging with the world. However, not all fears and anxieties overwhelm us completely. Occasionally, we can feel manipulated by our own emotions, like puppets being pushed and pulled. But the truth is, we have substantial agency over them in most situations. Traumatic events might be an exception to that rule—while they are happening, and shortly thereafter. But in daily life, we have some control and chance of influencing their course. How we do that depends on our ability to accurately read what we are feeling, identify the causes, and understand where it is coming from. Then, we can use strategies to regulate and manage what we are experiencing. This can take the form of making ourselves feel better, or finding a different way of feeling that is going to be helpful for that situation.

AZ: For me, creative intelligence comes from being curious and aware, but also very realistic. You have to accept the bad feelings as well as the good, to get to the truth of the matter, and do this with love, for yourself and for others. Serendipity has an inherent positivity to it, but I feel that this is earned, through the hard work of self-acceptance and emotional discipline. 

DC: And I’d like to note that we try not to label feelings as “positive,” “negative,” “bad,” or “good.” Another way to look at them is whether they helpful or not helpful for a given situation or task. A lot of people assume that emotions like anxiety and fear limit creativity, or do not allow for serendipitous encounters. One of the things that Zorana and I agree on and find interesting—which feels counterintuitive to a lot of people—is the importance of being able to access the full range of our emotions. There is no such thing as a happy warrior.

ZIP: I study creativity and emotions. There are three decades of experimental work that have concluded that positive, energized feelings are good for creative thinking. I felt conflicted about this, because it seems to be divorced from how creativity happens in the real world. For example, if we bring people into the lab, and create for them a way of feeling from showing a brief video clip—comedy, or something very sad—they are going to get into a certain mood. However: They did not choose these video clips, and they might not be particularly meaningful or relevant to them. Additionally, those feelings are not similar to the real world feelings that are inspiring people to create. I was quite frustrated with this way of doing research. While the finding is reliable, that happier people—versus neutral or negative—are better able to come up with more ideas, and more original ones on quick laboratory tasks, I was more curious about what people do in their everyday lives.

In my lab, we have studied artists, and asked them what emotions occur when they create. What we find is great diversity. People get inspired by joyous events, others by pain, anger, and nostalgia—everything in between. The daily effort of creating something is even more complex, because there is anxiety and stress involved in figuring out the work. Frustration is the norm, for it is difficult to translate what you want to say into materiality. There is not one way of feeling that is beneficial for creativity. We were asking the wrong question all along. The right question is: How can creative people use the variety of emotions they are experiencing? 

DC: Experiencing the full range of emotions can really facilitate thinking in different and unique ways. But harnessing their power does require a skill. We go back to managing emotions. An analogy is: Emotions are like water coming down a river. Will those emotions, or the water, flood us? We don’t have enough data to answer that. And yet: It isn’t how much water or emotions are flowing in our lives or through our towns, but how strong and high the banks of the rivers are. Emotion management is like the banks of the river, and their height. We can be experiencing very strong, intense, and varied emotions, which allows us to shift our perspective, looking at this through different lenses. But we can’t be overwhelmed by them, because otherwise we lose the data in those emotions. So, it’s not that we should feel less, but that we can learn to manage better. Some of us are better at this than others. Some of us have to work with this each and every moment of our waking lives.

There is no such thing as a happy warrior.︎There is no such thing as a happy warrior.︎

ZIP: We are scientists, and we think that data is always good to have. Emotions are a kind of data. They are telling you what is going on with yourself and in relation to what you are doing. If you are experiencing happiness, it means everything is good with the world. You do not have to pay attention to details—you have it under control. You do not have to expend more effort into what you’re doing, because, the message here is: Everything is good. However, if you are feeling frustrated, it means that there is an obstacle. Something is not quite right; you are not able to accomplish something in the way that you anticipated or wished. So: If you have this information, you can use it to inform your decisions. When something isn’t working, continuing in the same way is not going to be helpful. You probably have to look for a different approach. That could be: Reevaluating what you did; undoing something; or redoing something.

People often want to immediately make themselves feel better. But if they do so, they will miss important information in frustration or other challenging emotions, and not be as effective in their work. In terms of serendipity, you can see how this reading of the environment and of emotions can help you realize opportunities. Entrepreneurs, for instance, are full of these stories. The man who founded Instacart hated the experience of shopping in a grocery store. He didn’t just live through it, deal with shopping the way it was and made himself feel better afterwards—he said, I can do something about this.

AZ: When you are talking to a person who is “stuck”—this person could be an artist or parent or child or engineer or a doctor—what are the things you say to them, or ask them? Creativity and serendipity are so personal, but also so universal.

DC: Courage relates to the emotion management experience. You need it to be able to feel those feelings, not be overwhelmed or suppress them. Emotion management skill allows you to feel feelings, stay open to them and leverage them. Anger is another emotion that is scary for many of us. It arises from a sense of injustice. Without it, we’d have even more social ills in our world. There are things that happen out there to us, by us, by society, that should anger us. A serendipitous encounter is not always a happy thing; it could be an event which deeply disturbed you, that angers you. If you have the skill to capture the underlying data from that emotion, manage it, and internalize it, you can use it to effect change. 

Detail of Dawn, 2021–2022.
Oil and calcium carbonate on canvas with steel frame, 118” x 81”.

ZIP: Courage in creativity is very important, because it determines whether people are going to even attempt to do something. When we are facing problems or tasks, we have a choice. This is not always conscious. People don’t stop themselves and say, Am I going to take a safe choice, or the more original, risky option? People make decisions around how they will engage in a process. When I studied what kinds of attitudes go into these decisions, I found that there are two different kinds of negative attitudes that prevent a courageous decision. One is that people end up anticipating negative social consequences. They think: Will people think this idea is silly? Will it anger somebody? Will it challenge someone’s authority? Am I being disrespectful? Another attitude is based in curbing anxiety. You feel anxious, and decide it is better to be safe than sorry. This is risk aversion. On the flip side of that is the belief in the work. How willing are you to take those social and intellectual risks, possibly to the detriment of your reputation? Social risks are about others’ judgments of your unconventional ideas. Intellectual risks are geared towards yourself: Am I able to execute this? Can I learn the skills? Will I make it happen?

Sometimes, when people speak about decision-making or courage, they think it is just about them. But we do not live in a vacuum. These beliefs and fears are coming from previous experiences and memories. Those are real. We are also influenced by our immediate social environment. In terms of education, felt support—not just declared support—from peers and teachers is very important. In the world of work, support from our colleagues, and our supervisors and leaders—whose decisions can affect what we do and what we’re able to do—is key.

AZ: What are your thoughts on artificial intelligence? It used to be that a machine or technology was inherently inhuman. But now there are very striking—spooky—examples of AI-generated language, characterization, efficiency, and creativity. What is troublesome, and what is encouraging about all this?

DC: There are disturbing aspects of artificial intelligence. It recreates the creators with all their biases and limitations and worldviews, and it can be pretty horrifying. On the other hand, the personality psychologist David Funder has something called the Realistic Accuracy Model. He shows all the different processes that go into being a good and accurate observer of people. To paraphrase him: Rather than being surprised when we misunderstand or misperceive someone, we should be surprised when we get it right. So many things can go wrong in that process. In this case, technology can be enormously helpful in allowing people to supplement those skills that they may lack. They can provide compensatory or remedial strategies, while still acknowledging the troublesome aspects of recreating our own human biases in systems, and then claiming or thinking that they are bias-free. I love Funder’s quote. I remind people of it all the time, especially when we’re putting together hiring committees. You think you can just meet someone for an hour-long job interview, gaze into their eyes and gauge the depth of their soul? It doesn’t quite work that way. 

AZ: In terms of creative management and team-leading, how can serendipity function in these kinds of environments, or creative organizations in general? What stands out, in your research, as a marker for successful leadership in the arts?

ZIP: Leadership is very important. For serendipity to happen—and oftentimes for creativity to happen—we need to feel psychologically safe. Creative work involves the decision that you’re even going to attempt to do something that entails a different way of considering existing or new problems. Re-asking questions, trying things in ways that haven’t been done before. That’s the meaning of originality. If you are going to be original, by definition, then you don’t know how it will be received. Think of that in work settings. If you are unsure of an idea, to even contemplate proposing it, you need to feel pretty safe that you are not going to be rejected, or punished, or lose your status or job. There has to be a possibility of failing, without dire consequences. These kinds of environments are most directly created by supportive leaders who will allow you—implicitly or explicitly—to explore something, whether it will work out or not. An original, creative, transformational endeavor is by default daring. In my lab, we studied employee work experience. Those who described their supervisors as acting in emotionally intelligent ways—noticing and acknowledging what others are feeling; taking into account both optimistic and pessimistic points of view; understanding how their decisions affect others—were more motivated and engaged at work, as well as more creative.

A serendipitous encounter is not always a happy thing; it could be an event which deeply disturbed you, that angers you.︎

DC: As Zorana was saying: Leaders who possess higher levels of emotional intelligence do create environments that are more positive. They’re better at handling conflict. They don’t seek it out but they don’t avoid it. If you have the skills to manage people’s emotions—both pleasant and unpleasant—you don’t necessarily avoid conflict. You dive in, and you work through it. These leaders have greater stress tolerance, they engage in pro-social behavior, and have better relationships. In the last year or two, I’ve worked with many executive directors, presidents, and CEOs of performing arts organizations, mostly in the US. It’s a tough environment. During lockdown, when venues were closed, leaders needed to employ skills they never had to before, to do things they never had to do, such as lay off an entire orchestra or 60% of staff. Companies are just recovering from that, and this requires incredibly strong emotion management skills to just survive, let alone thrive. 

AZ: How is serendipity linked to passion and desire?

ZIP: Passion is a very energizing experience. It is a deep, strong desire to engage with something. When we are passionate, we define ourselves in terms of that activity. We don’t just say that we write poetry, we say we are a poet. There is also a commitment to persist, even when it is not easy, even when we experience obstacles; and a commitment to the goals in the long term. Passion energizes all of this. It opens us to seek new questions, to explore things in new ways, and to do so with full dedication. When we feel passion, we want to talk about it. We want to go to events about it, and we create new connections. This energy allows new things to emerge. Passion just opens you to the world.

Contributing artist Brennen Steines on his work

Dawn was finished this past winter. It belongs to a series of works that examines the material properties of painting, and its correspondence with duration, process, and abstraction. The paintings are created through a series of chance-based methods and responsive decisions, which result in tactile surfaces that visually resemble shifting landscapes.

I set out making work with a certain feeling of what I want it to be, but that vision changes with each subsequent layer. The paintings are built up through phases, and they transform through the weeks and months of working on a surface. Sometimes nuances and accidents result in something desirable. Other times, not so much. It’s really about juggling the joys and frustrations of the practice in order to resolve the painting. It’s also about reflecting on my experiences: What’s going on in the world, and what’s happening in my life, is absorbed into the work. It’s a kind of osmosis, which comes with a lot of different emotions.

A major theme of my work is the depiction of time. The work registers this through a method of additive and subtractive mark making. Layers of oil paint are added to the surface, left to dry, and then excavated, creating a geological sedimentation of pigment on the substrate. The paintings become visceral records of their own creation, resulting in topographical terrains that expose the traces of their own history.

The various violet and golden hues recall the sensation of light moving across a kind of unnamable mountainous terrain. The color is subtle yet acidic, and the chromatic shifts bring to mind different associations such as desert hills, geologic textures, sulphuric stone, infrastructural surfaces, and static interfaces.

Many of these interests are actually very rooted in my life experiences. I grew up in Illinois, and as a child, I used to wander around the grass field behind my house looking for fossils. The Midwest is interesting, because it has all this glacial till from the Ice Age. When the glaciers receded, they dragged all this sediment up and deposited it in the Great Lakes region. You can find all these different trilobites scattered about. I find this digging and connection with the past, and layering, very poetic.

Dawn, Brennen Steines, 2021–2022.
Oil and calcium carbonate on canvas with steel frame, 118” x 81”.

Dawn took about three months to complete, but I’m often working on several paintings at once. I’ll have a series of works installed in the studio, and I’ll do one pass on each painting, almost like scanning the surface with a layer, letting that dry, and then returning to it later. I let it metabolize into the thing that I want it to be. For me, abstraction is about the flow of the layers and textures. A conversation between time and material.

Brennen Steines is an artist working with painting, video, and sculpture. He received a Masters of Fine Art in Painting and Printmaking from Yale University School of Art and received a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. He is the recipient of Yale University’s CCAM Studio Fellowship and also attended the Yale Norfolk School of Art through the support of the Ellen Battell Stoeckel Fellowship. Recent Exhibitions include Vibrant Matters at Green Hall Gallery, New Haven, CT; 10268#, at Green Gallery, New Haven, CT; Vestiges at The Alice Wilds, Milwaukee, WI; Within and Against at Galerie Kenilworth, Milwaukee, WI.