Seda Röder - Author, Consultant & Entrepreneur
Seda Röder, formerly a concert pianist and now an author, entrepreneur and philanthropist who works to promote creativity in society and organizations. She is a sought-after speaker, advisor to DAX companies, and founder of the Sonophilia Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the scientific study of creativity and critical thinking.
Promoter of creativity, author, consultant & entrepreneur
She is co-founder and shareholder of The Mindshift, a consulting firm for creative technologies and leadership. Seda is also a management consultant at 8020.eco, a Fellow and member of the Salzburg Global Seminar Corporate Governance Forum, an angel investor and a network partner at the European startup accelerator Silicon Castles. In 2018, she received the Game Changer Award from the Austrian Chamber of Commerce for her entrepreneurial achievements, and in 2022 she was officially named Salzburg Ambassador for the state of Salzburg. Before moving to Europe, Seda taught music performance, theory, and history at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as an Associate and Affiliated Artist.
You are a trained pianist and want to bring more creativity into the world. What does creativity mean to you and why is creativity so important in different areas of life?
Creativity is a very broad field. There is a scientific perspective on what creativity is and how it is received and accepted by a social-scientific perspective. In addition, there is a very personal perspective on the subject of creativity. The scientific answer is: creativity must produce something original or new and it must be useful. If you take this definition literally, you would almost have to exclude art (laughs). But art is of course very useful. Although the personal perspective is very important, it is often underestimated. It is precisely at this interface, what I call the sweet spot, in the transition from scientific to personal creativity, that the non-profit organization I founded also comes into play: Sonophila Foundation in Munich. We support scientists working in the fields of creativity research, neuroscience and cognitive science with scholarships. For example, we enable them to participate in conferences, we support them with travel grants, and they can also come to Salzburg to work with us as residents for a few days.
Why personal creativity is so important? Not only for idea generation, but also because it includes a very important health aspect. We keep hearing about people quitting their jobs internally, they have burnouts and other symptoms such as an engagement problem. They say you could do without 80% of your workforce because they're not productive. Companies like Adobe do creativity studies around the world every year with many participants. The result is that one in three people would like to engage more creatively in the company, but only one in four succeeds. Employees feel that their creativity is not valued. Companies claim that they are looking for creative employees, but apparently they don't give people enough room to be creative. People are dissatisfied, unhappy, they get tired and pale from day to day at work. We see this phenomenon many times. That is why creativity is so important. We live in a world where we strive for innovation, for ideas, new solutions and conflict management. After all, what moves and surrounds people comes from creativity. But unfortunately, we often think that progress just falls out of the sky. Innovations and ideas that change the way we think and act are not mechanical processes. We forget the human behind it and I fight to bring creativity out of its ivory tower because creativity is a human ability that is not only reserved for artists or the privileged who want to deal with it, but a force that we should awaken in all people. We are all challenged to use our creativity and make our contribution.
How do you foster this creativity?
There are quite a few methods, also in art. My personal background comes from art, of course. You can integrate artistic practice into workflows or help people generate ideas. There are a number of techniques for working creatively. You can also take a lot from design thinking or from the future and science fiction method. There's a big toolbox of methods from pedagogy to art. These are not secret sciences, we know how artists work. You try something out, if it doesn't work, you try it differently, play it to your friends, etc. It's about constantly improving, finding new or different approaches. This works in all areas. It's about approaching things playfully, without coercion or fear, and encouraging collaboration and communication with other colleagues. As long as the risk is not great, you have a lot of leeway. In art, this is a matter of course, and it should also be in business enterprises. You just have to communicate it to your employees and create the space and conditions for it. There are also workshops on "future thinking" and "design thinking. However, this should be incorporated into education from an early age. However, this should already be incorporated into education at an early age. Unfortunately, in our current systems, we systematically drive creativity out of people, only to tell them at the age of 25 or 30, as soon as they are active in working life: now please think "out of the box" again, into which we have forced them before.
With the Sonophilia Foundation, you also support scientific research on creativity. How is creativity scientifically researched?
Within creativity research there are several branches. For example, one measures the distances of the associations. This means that it is also tested verbally. An idea is put into the room and people are given the task to generate 35 to 40 or more linking ideas within a limited time. Afterwards, the distance between the starting point and the end point is measured and the result provides information about how creative a process has been. However, there are also other possibilities. Entrepreneurial creativity is measured by patents, for example. According to this, Japan is the most creative country in the world because it files more patents per year than any other country. There has also been great progress in the field of neuroscience. We used to think that creativity was a gift from God or that creativity had something to do with genes and was inherited. Today, instruments such as magnetic resonance imaging are available and we can observe what happens in people's brains while they are working creatively, for example by writing texts, improvising or generating ideas. This also debunks myths like working with right vs. left brain. The brain always works holistically.
We know that people like science fiction writers, who have worked particularly hard on their creative imagination, when imagining a distant future, can quickly turn on a center, we call it Dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex, which is responsible for so-called Distant Imaging. While other people who have not trained this have great difficulty imagining a future that is even only three days ahead. It is really important for the future that we train people to do that. I attribute a lot of society's problems to a lack of creativity and a lack of future thinking skills, because there were probably people at work who just can't imagine the future. For example, we support a researcher who is doing insight research at Humboldt University. Solving magic tricks is at the heart of this. People are shown tricks and then they have three attempts to figure out how the trick works. Afterwards, the "riddle" is solved. An "aha" effect sets in (Eureka effect). As a result, one can see a brightening in certain centers of the brain and a new connection.
The interesting thing about this research is the finding that after the onset of the "aha" moment or Eureka moment, the information is retained much more accurately for many years than without this experience. Information stays in memory much longer because it causes a structural change in the brain. This is in contrast to the traditional way of taking in information by means of lecture or reading. With this in mind, I do wonder why we don't incorporate this knowledge into pedagogy.
What was the path from pianist to entrepreneur like?
It was a long road (laughs). I started playing the piano when I was new, at the age of eleven I went to the conservatory in Istanbul and from then on I devoted myself primarily to piano playing. At the age of 20 I came to the Mozarteum and at about 27 I had finished my training including the master class training in Munich with Gerhard Opitz. This was followed by concert life and a project at Harvard University. I was invited as a Visiting Scholar. On the one hand I gave concerts, on the other hand I worked as an assistant to Robert Levin, among others. I also had a position as an Affiliated Artist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This is where I had my first touches with technology. I worked at Harvard with Hans Tutschku, the electroacoustic composer, a former "apostle" of Stockhausen. He's quite a great artist. That time in America was very formative because there was a very interesting exchange with people from very many different fields who were doing what they were doing at an extremely high level. So there was a very good intellectual exchange and the first conversations about the importance of innovation, idea generation, creative work, etc. emerged. It struck me at the time that when people talked about innovation, they were describing mechanical processes. First comes the idea and then it is implemented. The most important part was the implementation. An idea is nothing if you don't implement it. I understand that, but it's only one part. The Creative Process is not just about generating ideas. The actual process has several steps: from idea generation, incubation, idea implementation, iteration, and possibly a loop if needed. Many people are not aware of how creative work works. So I was invited to the first lectures to embed artistic approach in companies. I looked at the processes in companies and tried to understand what potential there was. These methods were very well received and that's how my consulting company The Mindshift was born.
So an essential step was that you opened up to the outside world, became interested in people and activities besides playing the piano, right?
Yes, fortunately I had Rolf Plagge as a professor at the Mozarteum, he brought a lot of understanding. But I kept hearing from colleagues that I should concentrate more on my piano playing and not get bogged down. In retrospect, I can connect the dots well and the "bogging down" was the right thing to do. But of course I also often had doubts. For example, I was interested in neume theory and was often asked why I needed it. In my later contemporary music career, which I ended with my great final concert at the Beethoven Festival in the Bonn Kammerspiele, the knowledge came in handy. Neumenkunde helped me understand what musical notation means. As musicians, we often behave like slaves to the notation but forget that the notation is only a graphic representation. It is not the music itself, but only an attempted approximation to a performance. You don't see these connections at first, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. I have always tried to open as many doors as possible.
Having already published several articles in professional journals on management theories and contributed to prestigious publications, I was asked if I had studied business psychology or something similar. No, I didn't. I acquired my knowledge on my own. There is also no reason to ask anyone for permission to do a certain job, of course as long as no human life is at stake. If you do your job well, you will be asked. You can't let others make you insecure, you have to do what you love to do. Put in the work, acquire knowledge and, of course, keep up with the experts in the field. You also need communication skills. I do a lot of courses and seminars. Step number one is to allow yourself to go your own way. The results usually speak for themselves.
What was particularly formative in your training period at the university, or where could it have been more?
When I studied at the Mozarteum we were in the ZIB building. The spatial conditions allowed us to meet with many students of other subjects. Not only with instrumentalists, but also with acting students. That was very nice and enriching. I enjoyed surrounding myself with people who had other specialties. So I often sat in rehearsals of acting productions and attended language courses, courses on literature and music, etc. at the University of Salzburg. These were courses that were not part of my curriculum. This expanded my circle of friends and I had a very nice student life. However, I had few friendships in the piano environment. I think there was a lot of competition, especially between classes. That was not my world. Neither were competitions.
My roommates, an opera singer and a composer, kept taking workshops. That's how I came to a free improvisation course. The nice thing about it was that we were literally allowed to "let our hair down" (laughs). That helped me to grow beyond myself, without thinking that this could now be embarrassing. Another formative moment was a workshop with an American artist agent about the skills that artists need to have today. The bottom line was that being very good at piano is not enough. You have to broaden your horizons and think outside the box.
What would you like to give young artists at the beginning of their careers?
I would open every door that comes my way and look behind it. Don't be ashamed of anything, and don't be too shy for anything either, because the study period is there to try out a lot of things. One must not give in to the illusion that life goes according to plan. Life's paths are allowed to change, and it's okay to admit that. You don't do anything for nothing.
When you think about the future, what would you wish for in the fields of art, creativity and society?
My first wish would be for the artists to go out of their "chamber". Creativity is a social phenomenon and not just reserved for art. I think it's important to take society with us and also to teach "non-artists" the techniques, methods and artistic attitude. That is also a kind of social responsibility.
The second wish is for much more interdisciplinarity. You have to get out of your own field. Creativity and inspiration mean nothing other than being able to think in analogies. That is, I see something in one area and am able to transfer it to my own area.
The third wish is directed at the educators, asking them to acquire the first two skills and to get rid of their hostility towards technology. Communication is also an essential point. Today there are many technical tools and it is up to us to use them.