Saybrook student Joel Sereboff is completing his Ph.D. dissertation this semester in the Creativity Studies specialization in the School of Psychology and Interdisciplinary Inquiry. His research includes narrative inquiry and an autoethnographic exploration of his own creative process as an inventor. In this interview Sereboff explains his reasons for doing the research, and doing it at Saybrook.
Tell us a little about your background.
I am a first generation American, the son of Jewish parents who fled from the oppression of the Russian Cossacks. My parents owned a grocery store in which I worked from age seven. My mother was an unrelenting taskmaster while my father provided a stark contrast as a loving and creative man who encouraged me to learn to draw. I attribute my love of oil painting to my Dad as well as many wonderful teachers with whom I studied privately and at the Maryland Institute of Art.
My life’s path took a fortuitous turn when I was employed as a caseworker at Spring Grove State Hospital near Baltimore, Maryland. I loved helping people. It was in my position at “the Grove” where my career in social work and psychology was spawned. I stayed in the state mental health system progressing to a position as Chief of Program Development for the State Drug Abuse Administration. When I tired of the politics of that position, I decided to go into the private practice of psychotherapy. I was a fellow in National Association of Social Workers, an approved supervisor with the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and certified by the Gestalt Therapy Institute of Washington, D.C.
I enjoyed my work with people for many years until my wife became paralyzed from Guillain-Barre Syndrome. The pressure on her frail body was so damaging that her skin began to break down and she developed skin ulcers. It was difficult to watch her suffer, and I resolved to do something about it. After much study and research, I invented a new chemical composition to cushion my wife’s body and prevent skin ulceration. I continued my practice and did my research until 1998, when I realized inventing required my full-time commitment. So, I closed my practice and embarked on a new life adventure as an inventor. Since then I have been awarded over 20 U.S. patents.
What made you decide to apply to the Creativity Studies program at Saybrook University?
I had many questions about invention as a creative process, and I wanted to do research to better understand the invention process and how I became an inventor. Ultimately, I want to write a book on creativity and invention, and I concluded the structure of a good doctoral program would be helpful to me to do the necessary research. I was particularly impressed with the Creativity Studies Program at Saybrook University. Impressive as well were those of the Saybrook faculty who specialize in creativity studies — Dr. Steven Pritzker, a talented, retired comedy writer and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Creativity; Dr. Ruth Richards, who has written many papers on creativity and authored the book, Everyday Creativity; and Dr. Stanley Krippner, whose writing I had admired for many years. I was drawn to Saybrook because of its humanistic orientation and impressive history. Beginning in 2010, I enjoyed creativity studies as the focus of my graduate work. I decided upon the following research questions for my dissertation:
- What key life experiences and cultural influences shaped how I express myself creatively and influenced my development as an inventor?
- How did I become an inventor, and were there attitudinal or value changes that fostered my becoming?
- How does invention come about?
What does creativity mean to you?
Creativity appears to be highly nuanced and, thus, I avoid any narrow, mechanistic bias. As an inventor, oil painter and writer, I gravitate to a broad meaning of creativity that is a blend of several views. Clearly, my creativity is expressive of my Self – an ontological issue that is part of the great puzzle of our being and a manifestation of consciousness. That view inspires my creative expression, which appears to involve a reorganization of general and specific knowledge with a resulting conceptual synthesis that brings novelty and utility to this world. I find great satisfaction in the novel end products of my creativity – my oil paintings and my inventions.
What is your doctoral research about?
My research used narrative inquiry and the lens of autoethnography to describe how I evolved as a creative person – artist, inventor, and writer. The study presents a relationship between the act of invention and creativity as a manifestation of consciousness. I describe the process through which my creativity became manifest in my painting, my work as a psychotherapist, and as an inventor. I discussed the dynamics that impacted my creative development in the various settings and stages of my life.
How is studying for your PhD a creative process?
My creativity studies enhanced my creative process. I discovered new ways to think about and investigate fascinating issues that emerged from seminars, and often I found myself following unique creative paths inspired by seminar speakers.
What is a piece of advice you would give on how to enhance creativity?
It is important to learn how to access consciousness that is transcendental to our “normal,” everyday thought processes. It is beneficial to learn practices that enable expansion of consciousness. For me, meditation works wonders. Using meditation I stop trying to be creative, and I enable the free flow of creative energy.
Which creative person do you admire? Why?
It is difficult to choose one creative person whom I admire. There are so many from whom I have learned and whose creativity I have enjoyed. From Otto Rank I learned that creativity is a will phenomenon mediated by consciousness. I love the music of Leonard Bernstein and classic composers like Mozart, Chopin, and Beethoven. But that leaves room for the Grateful Dead. As a painter, I admire and learn from the works of Leonardo, and Rubens, as well as from Joseph Sheppard, and David Zuccarini, contemporary painters and my teachers, who inspire me in my creative painting process.
There are too many noted inventors whom I admire to narrow it down to a single person. But I must offer my deep appreciation to the philosophers, Epicurus and Lucretius as well as physicists, Schrodinger, Einstein and Bohm for their inspiring work.
What do you plan to do with the knowledge and experience you’re getting in the program?
Now that I have done my research, it s time to write my book on the creative process of invention.