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Natalie Nixon Explains Why True Creativity Calls for Wonder and Rigor

In a Fast Company interview, Doreen Lorenzo spoke to Natalie Nixon, president of Figure 8 Thinking, a global speaker, and a creativity strategist, and is the author of The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation, and Intuition at Work, which is an honoree of the 2021 Fast Company World Changing Ideas Awards.

Nixon grew up around women very gifted in the fiber arts, learning to sew herself at the age of 10. After attending Vassar and graduating with a double major in anthropology and Africana studies, she moved to New York City where she began sewing again. She started a small successful hat business once she realized she could sell her creations. Working at the intersection of business and fashion inspired her to enter a master’s program in global textile marketing studying in Israel and Germany. She later graduated from that program and was hired by a global sourcing division of the Limited Brands to work in Sri Lanka and Portugal.

Tired of being on airplanes all the time for work, Nixon decided to return to academia and teach in the fashion management program at Thomas Jefferson University. Her mentors encouraged her to pursue a PhD to broaden her career options in academia, but it wasn’t until she discovered the field of design management that decided to enter a PhD program in design management, earning in four years while working full-time. Following the completion of her PhD, Nixon launched the Strategic Design MBA program, an executive MBA program that integrated design thinking into how people were learning strategy, leadership, financial operations, and branding. 

Two years after launching that program, Nixon gave a TEDx talk proclaiming that the future of work is jazz that catapulted her consultancy career as companies invited her to speak to their teams. This led to the formation of Figure 8 Thinking, a repository for her practice that grew from a side hustle to her main focus. As she was building up Figure 8 Thinking, Nixon wrote The Creativity Leap to offer a simple and accessible way for people to think about creativity. Nixon explained, “The way I define creativity is that it’s about toggling between wonder and rigor to solve problems. Asking “what if” questions, being audacious, in awe, pausing and encouraging curiosity is all about wonder. Discipline, time on task, and focus is the rigor. Creativity is not doing whatever you feel like—it requires the wonder and the rigor.”

Nixon interviewed over 50 diverse people from a range of sectors and professions for The Creativity Leap. Her findings informed her development of the 3i Creativity framework: inquiry, improvisation, and intuition. The most successful leaders unabashedly embrace and talk about the role of intuition in building strategy. Inquiry is about asking questions that lead to discovery, exploration, and experimentation. Lastly, improvisation is about being present and adaptive. When working with organizations, Nixon’s goal is to equip them with the ability to start looking at very different sources of inspiration and learning, creating shifts in mindsets that ultimately lead to culture change.

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