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July 20, 2016

Obstacles and Opportunities in the Creative Journey -Chris Cohoon ’16, TLAD

by chriscohoon

Change is the only constant in the life of service members and their families.  Major moves (often transcontinental) occur anywhere from yearly intervals up to four years.  The span between moves is often interrupted by multiple deployments which range from training missions, to humanitarian aid, to combat.  A friend of mine, who is a former pilot in the Air Force, averaged  310 days worth of deployments in the calendar year – and that was during peace time.  From the transient environment, come sarcastic colloquialisms, such as: “Home is where the military sends me,” or “Home is where I store my stuff.”  One learns to not ask a military kid, “Where are you from?” unless one wishes for a look of confusion and/or disdain.  A former student of mine had moved 14 times before her 13th birthday.

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Amidst the flurry of brainstorming


The military is known for being regimented.  When I ask marines what they do at work, training nearly always comes up in their answer.  The Marine Corps ensures that each of its members knows their job backwards and forwards.  It makes sense that, in the chaos of battle – or even in the transient lifestyle – one needs to know their job by rote.  The means to this end is simplification and efficiency – even at the expense of the simplest, most efficient solution.  Job descriptions and policies are often written by what seems to be a good solution at the time.  The training criteria is then disseminated and leaves little room for questioning or interpretation.  Another oft uttered colloquialism is that “if the military wanted your opinion, it would have issued you one.” So, while one’s job differs greatly from location to location, and times change quickly, the slow grind of the bureaucratic structure and the unflinching culture of tradition, duty, and authority severely limit the potential for more efficient solutions.

One of the reasons that I chose to work with marines for this project is because of the general lack of creativity within Marine Corps culture.  In the last two weeks of classes, this point was  highlighted as we learned about brainstorming and ideation.  The creative dichotomy between the high school class and the marine class is palpable.  It has taken much longer for the marines to warm up to creative ideation, even though they are only one or two years older than the high school students.  I feel that the heart of the matter is one of permission.  In many ways, the straight forward direction and rote training of the military makes sense.  In certain situations, repetition and muscle memory will save your life.  It is difficult for young marines to feel the freedom to think outside of this context, even when not at work.  It has even been a challenge for my marine participants to call me “Chris,” rather than “sir.”  We are getting there, slowly.

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Hydroelectric generators, coolers/seats, hoods to keep your feet dry, sonar, PET bottle construction material, so many creative ideas!!

The fluctuation of personnel constantly transitioning in and out still has its effects on policy, despite the attempts at standardization.  On my way out here, my supervisor had secured a building on the Marine Corps base for a classroom studio space.  By the time I flew out, the commander who had approved the space transitioned out, and his replacement decided that there were other priorities that demanded the use of that site.  My supervisor quickly worked to find a workshop off base.  Being off base makes it more difficult for young marines to make it to class, as they are not allowed to drive.  At the same time, however, this turn of events created a greater opportunity to recruit local Okinawans to participate in the design project with us.  What better way to learn about empathy than by working with people from other cultures?  Unfortunately, the language barrier has proven greater than my hopes, so far.  Translators are difficult to come by, as are English speaking Okinawans.  With four weeks left, I’m still hopeful that those connections will happen.

My Maharam Fellowship experience in Okinawa is challenging, as I face systemic and cultural barriers.  But a good challenge provides good opportunities to design solutions to meet those challenges.  The shape and tempo of classes change (sometimes weekly) to meet the needs of participants.  And with each class, we have had great moments of synapses connecting and lightbulbs turning on over our heads.  In one such moment, one of the marine participants returned to class after a research/survey assignment.  The assignment was to survey as broad of a population as he could, in order to gather information about potential “customers” in the base population.  It was clear that his samples all came from his peers.  When I probed as to why he didn’t survey others around him, he informed me that the other people around him are sergeants, and he doesn’t like sergeants.  The conversation turned back to the data he collected.  It was apparent that his peer group is unable to purchase a paddle board from our mock-business at a price that is sustainable.  The logical follow-on question was to ask who, then, is a better customer target?  He concluded that sergeants earn a considerably higher salary and would likely be a good target.  He quickly realized why it might be beneficial to empathize with sergeants though he might not sympathize with them.


One of the young marines joined with the high school class to help shape prototypes.  

The conversation then took a turn toward the importance of empathy in leadership.  The marine admitted that he didn’t like sergeants because they doll out extra work and discipline arbitrarily.  Sergeants, in his mind, don’t deal fairly with subordinates because they don’t know them.  So, perhaps, a lack of empathy leads to poor leadership.  Pressing on, we discussed that in may also be that the views of the subordinate marines are also skewed because they don’t understand the experiences of their superiors.  The eureka moment, however, hit when he realized that, if all goes well with his career, in a couple of years, he will be one of those sergeants.  This thought had never been within his grasp in his short tenure.  Together, we concluded that empathy is a very important part of leadership, and a dose of humility to recognize that we aren’t superior to other peoples is a great first step to being a good leader.

The past couple of weeks have been perplexing, and even frustrating, at times.  The Marine Corps culture and the circumstances here on Okinawa don’t make promoting creativity any easier.  In the midst of it all, however, there are still great moments with the marines and the high school students that I feel utterly privileged to be able to work with.

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Students working to bring their ideas into the tangible world

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