What is Creativity? 9 Rules to Find Your Inner Creative
‘Be more creative’ is a phrase often used within business and marketing with little consideration given to its meaning. SEO and online marketing have seen seismic shifts over the last few years and being creative is now an essential ingredient to online marketing success. But what is creativity?
“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try.” Dr. Seuss
What others have said about creativity:
“Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value.” Sir Ken Robinson
“Creativity is not a talent, it’s a way of operating.” John Cleese
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, the just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.” Steve Jobs
Creativity from a scientific perspective:
“We think what we see is a relaxation of ‘executive functions’ to allow more natural de-focused attention and uncensored processes to occur that might be the hallmark of creativity.” Allen Braun
The OED definition for ‘creative’:
Relating to or involving imagination or original ideas.
My definition of creativity is:
Creativity is being exposed to diverse influences and recreating your own unique interpretation of existing ideas.
Consider ‘creativity’ in the everyday world:
Ferran Adrià’s cooking, Richard Branson’s publicity stunts, Chris Dyson’s unique bagless vacuum cleaners. Traffic flow systems, the internet, computers, light bulbs, even the sandwich (invented so the Earl of Sandwich could eat and play cards at the same time) all came from creative inspiration.
Creativity is all around us in every aspect of our lives, from the clothes we wear in the morning to the appliances we make our breakfast with, from the car we drive to work to the building we work in. Even the most mundane objects such as a ballpoint biro (one of my favourite creative ideas), or a road sign are creative ideas.
Some cultures believe creativity to be a capricious spirit, reliant upon the whims of divine intervention. In reality, creativity owes more to sheer hard work and tenacity; working through many iterations before the solution is reached.
Most people believe that creativity means painting a picture or performing a song – but that is a skill-based understanding – process, not substance. There is much confusion around the difference between style and creativity. A lot of designers are ‘stylists’: they make things look good. Creativity is about concepts, ideas and innovation.
“There are many people calling themselves creative who are actually mere stylists.” Edward de Bono
Considered to be the exclusivity of artists and designers, creativity is in fact a skill we can all access. Everyone has the capacity to generate ideas. Admittedly, some people are more inclined towards creative thinking, just as some are able to figure large maths calculations in their head or swim like Michael Phelps. But anyone can increase his or her level of creativity.
I have experience with many ways of trying to make a living being creative: from printing photographs onto pieces of wood and getting up at 5 a.m. to sell them at Spitalfields Art Market, to hand silk screen printing cushions and scarves and selling them at Chelsea Craft Fair; publishing my own range of cards and selling them internationally at the NEC Spring Fair and Top Drawer in London; magazine editing, building websites, designing brochures, being a shadow artist for a well known ‘cute’ character — the list goes on. I have hustled, learnt on my feet and jumped on trends to keep being creative and survive.
Even after 17 years experience, I still keep studying and working at it every single day. Learning is one of my biggest passions in life and I think we should remain open to change and keep learning right until we expire. Always be curious.
You can download a PDF copy of What is Creativity as an ebook here
Here are 9 rules to help you find your inner creativity:
Learn how to think – the right way
Creativity is perceived to be something external and out of our control or an inherent talent for a chosen few — but thinking and idea-generation are skills that can be learned. Some people do have a greater aptitude for thinking creatively and laterally, just as some people are more logic-based but it is a misconception that creativity is an exclusive right of a select group. John Cleese, in his experience, believes that creativity is not an ability you have or have not. Research by Donald W MacKinnon has also shown that IQ is not relevant to creativity.
I struggled for years to swim front crawl as I couldn’t breath properly and would usually end up choking half-way through a length after inhaling chlorine water. I had one swimming lesson which taught me how to turn my head the right way at the right time and now I can swim freestyle pretty much non-stop. Until you have learnt the fundamentals and know how to do something the right way, it’s very difficult to do it to your best ability. I believe that the lack of support for teaching creative and lateral thinking in schools and the way in which our education puts value on academia and not creative subjects contributes to the attitude of ‘I am just not a creative person.’
Understanding how to think will drastically improve your creativity.
I can’t recommend enough the book Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono, which teaches thinking skills in very easy exercises. Changing your point of entry when approaching a problem, suspending judgement and learning how to effectively brainstorm are just a few of the skills that you can learn quickly to radically change your approach to problem solving, thinking and finding creative solutions. (Too deep a subject to tackle here so I will be tackling this subject in a dedicated book.)
The traditional type of thinking is vertical thinking. Sequential and logic-based vertical thinking moves through a set process and stops when the best solution for a problem is found. Most thinking is done this way – we are taught to think vertically.
Lateral thinking is about removing preconception and being prepared to work with ideas that at first appear wrong and jumping randomly between thoughts in a non-sequential manner. Taking such a seemingly chaotic approach to thinking enables you to set aside any ingrained beliefs that may influence your thinking subconsciously. Thinking is then open to breakthroughs of radical new solutions. Ideas can be conceived in a way that vertical thinking is not capable of.
“In vertical thinking, one moves forward by sequential steps each of which must be justified…In lateral thinking, one uses information not for its own sake but for its effect. In lateral thinking, one may have to be wrong at some stage in order to achieve the correct solution.” Edward de Bono, Lateral Thinking
|Vertical Thinking||Lateral Thinking|
|Selective and exclusive of ideas||Non-selective and open to all ideas|
|Focuses on one promising solution||Generates as many alternative approaches as possible|
|Will stop when a promising solution is reached||Carries on looking for solutions after a promising solution is found|
|Trying to select the best solution||Generating many different solutions|
|Is sequential and moves forward one step at a time||Can make jumps|
“With vertical thinking, one uses information for its own sake in order to move forward to a solution. With lateral thinking, one uses information not for its own sake but provocatively in order to bring about repatterning.” Edward De Bono, Lateral Thinking
Vertical and lateral thinking are co-dependent
Vertical and lateral thinking are both essential for different tasks and work hand-in-hand. Whilst lateral thinking can conceive of radical new creative ideas, vertical thinking can then implement those new ideas in functional ways. Learning to think laterally will improve your overall thinking and creative skills by expanding your brain’s capacity to look for new solutions.
Three techniques for lateral thinking are:
Using an analogy: To avoid being trapped by the obvious when looking for creative ideas and solutions, use an analogy to shift your thinking. For example,
imagine wanting a solution to find car keys – consider being lost in fog, a vision impaired person finding their way around, a stranger in a foreign location. By using an analogy you will see the problem in a different way and approach it with fresh solutions.
Reverse information and reject the obvious: to break the natural pattern of order. For example, in online marketing your aim is to direct traffic to a website. Reverse and consider: how do you take the website to the traffic? Or reject the obvious and the brain is forced to consider other alternatives. For example, when considering how to increase the online visibility of a website, imagine that search engines don’t exist.
Opposing elements: Another pattern breaker is to take two random and opposing items and connect them (a classic technique for humour). For example, a fish riding a bicycle, a ballet-dancing hippo, a toad that sings opera. Brainstorm and create a mind map of keywords associated to your theme, as this can throw up lots of possibilities for potential connection that suggest creative ideas.
Two of my favourite things in the world to do are swimming and reading. My Sundays are precious and I look forward to an early morning ‘big’ swim and then reading and relaxing for the rest of the day to help recharge my batteries for the week. I read widely and passionately: blogs, websites, newspapers, magazines, books and newsletters.
Read widely and get to the source
One thing I have learnt through experience is to read widely offline and listen to as many thought leaders speak as possible. I live for the internet — it runs my life — but I have noticed that the more I read books, the more I get to the source of original ideas. The more I am exposed to culture in the real world (exhibitions, conferences), the more my creativity is stimulated. We know better than anyone that the internet is full of duplicate content, but it is also full of amazing ideas and people with something to say. The difficulty is finding them amongst all the noise. It is easier to get to the real meat when you get offline. And then you have more chance of being original online.
If you search for ‘it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert’ you are faced with 267,000,000 results: all ‘me too’ articles inspired by the original book. I read the printed book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell several years ago (before any mention and online hype) and as a result, can confidently quote the original source without the influence of other opinions and ‘blah’ articles.
Nothing compares to hearing thought leaders and experts speak live. You get direct access and insight into brilliant minds, get to hear things you may never read anywhere else and are at the forefront of development and research. As we all have experience from SEO conferences, the best tips are the ones we hear while listening to thought leader panel discussions: cutting edge tips and techniques in a fast moving industry. Conferences are one of my best sources of inspiration.
Feed the creative machine
I remember reading the definition of an art director as ‘someone who has to have extensive knowledge from a diverse range of subjects to feed their creativity.’ I cannot advocate enough the benefits you take from exposure to as much cultural input as possible to improve your thinking. After all: ‘all ideas are second hand,’ (see below) so you need to keep feeding your machine so it has ingredients to process.
“The creative person wants to be a know it all, he wants to know about all kinds of things. He never knows when these ideas might come together to form a new idea. It may happen six minutes later or in six years but the creative person has faith it will happen.” Dave Trott quoting Carl Ally, the great NYC advertiser, in Creative Mischief
Think beyond the search box
I grew up pre-Google in the days when, if you had a question, you had to go to a library and look the answer up in a book – you couldn’t just type in a question and have thousands of answers delivered instantly like you can now. When I wrote my dissertation in 1995, I spent most of my days in London visiting libraries and talking to people who could help me. It took months. If I wrote my dissertation today (subject: Deconstruction fashion and philosophy) then it would probably take me a few days research via Google. But the very fact that I have these offline skills of looking for solutions and answers in the ‘old fashioned way’ means that I can now think beyond the search box. I can find answers anywhere and have excellent research skills because of it. Which, in turn, provides me with the inspiration and information to access when I want to think of a creative solution.
“Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people.” Leo Burnett
Always be curious and asking questions
This was one of the seven principles that Leonardo Da Vinci lived by and to which he attributed his great creative output. I think these maxims perfectly illustrate my own beliefs and are reflections of how I approach creativity:
- Curiosità – be insatiably curious and forever asking questions
- Demostrszione – knowledge through experience and learning through mistakes
- Sensazione – refinement of the sense to enliven experience
- Sfumato – ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty
- Arte/scienza – the balance between the logical and the imagination
- Corporalita – maintaining a fit and healthy body as a vehicle for the brain
- Connessione – the connection of all things and interdependence
Read widely and as often as you can. Make frequent visits to places that stimulate your interest and curiosity: museums, galleries, even retro junk shops or markets. Absorbing new information will start to fire your synapses and stimulate your thinking and ideas. Remember to keep notes. And get to as many industry conferences as possible to hear cutting edge information. Investment in your own learning is the best way to increase your success in life.
John Cleese understands and defines the creative process as learning to switch between two states or modes: open and closed. When we are under pressure and stress to deliver, such as in our everyday working lives, we are in closed mode. When we are relaxed, detached from problems and ‘playful,’ we are in open mode. Open can be considered ‘playful’ (lateral thinking) and closed ‘logical’ (vertical thinking). Just as we need both lateral thinking and vertical thinking, we need open and closed states to solve a problem: the open state allows us to develop creative ideas and then the closed state to plan and implement the idea. These are similarly aligned to vertical and lateral thinking processes.
How do we achieve open mode and what can scientific research tell us about finding the optimum mental state for being creative?
Measuring and quantifying creativity has always been a difficult task because it is so subjective. Breakthrough research in this field is largely attributed to Donald W MacKinnon who is recognised as a pioneer within creative research. I would recommend this paper for further in-depth reading: Some Critical Issues for Future Research in Creativity
“Psychologists have studied creativity for decades, developing a variety of tests to assess creativity and creative potential in individuals. Using these tests to guide them, cognitive neuroscientists are now using sophisticated neuroimaging tools to assess the neuroanatomical differences between more-creative and less-creative individuals, with the hopes of developing an understanding of creativity from the bottom-up, so to speak. If we are ever to understand creativity in an evolutionary perspective, then we must be able to link the extraordinary painting or inspired insight to the brain structures from which they sprang.” John S Allen, Ph D
The neural activity of freestyle rappers
One of the most interesting studies in recent times (2012) involved measuring neural activity in freestyle rappers. Historically, waiting for creatives to have their ‘eureka’ moments could take days and that made it difficult to measure the brain patterns that happened when creativity was in effect. Rapping is a highly creative process with an intense production/delivery rate, which makes it ideal to study — it has a short time span to track with clear structure as to when the rapper is actually in creative mode.
Results from the study showed that during creative activity, the decision-making area of our brain (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) is inactive and the area for emotional response is extremely active (the medial prefrontal cortex). This area is also responsible for learning association, context, and events as well as emotional response.
“Artists showed lower activity in part of their frontal lobes called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during improvisation, and increased activity in another area, called the medial prefrontal cortex. The areas that were found to be ‘deactivated’ are associated with regulating other brain functions.” Allen Braun
Research by Dr Alice Flaherty, neuroscientist, shows that there is a link between dopamine and creativity.
“Being creative is not a passive process, and creative people are more responsive to sensory stimulation, have higher baseline levels of arousal, and increased goal-directed behaviour. In Flaherty’s findings, people vary in terms of their level of creative drive according to the activity of the dopamine pathways of the limbic system. Dopamine mediates reward-seeking behaviour and appreciation for music and beautiful faces—Flaherty suggests that creative motivation also originates in these dopaminergic pathways.” John S Allen, Ph D
The implications of this explain why artists have often claimed to be more creative whilst under the influence of drugs or alcohol, when dopamine is heightened. Dopamine is also released during exercise, when we are relaxed, when we feel pleasure and at times such as when we are listening to music.
Shelley H Carson, university researcher, psychologist and author of Your Creative Brain says that distraction is needed to allow the brain time to process a problem.
“If you are stuck on a problem, an interruption can force an “incubation period. In other words, a distraction may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution.’’ Shelley H Carson
James Webb Young already knew this in the 1940s when he wrote A Technique For Producing Ideas and realised you have to allow the mind time to mentally digest its ingredients before it will deliver an idea.
And, essentially, we must be relaxed to achieve the open mode:
“Why is a relaxed state of mind so important for creative insights? When our minds are at ease—when those alpha waves are rippling through the brain—we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere. In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve. While this pattern of attention is necessary when solving problems analytically, it actually prevents us from detecting the connections that lead to insights. ‘That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers,’ Bhattacharya says. ‘For many people, it’s the most relaxing part of the day.’ It’s not until we’re being massaged by warm water, unable to check our e-mail, that we’re finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been their all along—we just weren’t listening.” Jonah Lehrer, Imagine
Therefore, research would indicate that the best environments in which to incubate creativity are:
- When we are in touch with our emotional responses
- When dopamine is being released
- When we are relaxed
- When we are distracted from routine
So when does this perfect storm arise? In the shower, exercising, cooking to unwind, listening to music. Any activity where we are relaxed, yet focused on a mundane function and not thinking is our sweet spot for ideas.
I usually have great creative idea for projects just as I am about to fall asleep — if I don’t make the effort to turn the light on and make a note, when I wake up, it’s gone.
Always carry a notebook for when inspiration strikes.
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Seneca, Roman Philosopher
Cleese’s advice to get into an open state is to:
- Find space where you will be undisturbed
- Set an amount of time to remove pressure
- Be playful and use humour
- Set a time for decision and delay until that point
Create the right environment to be creative. Find a space that removes you from association with work or pressure (preferably not home).
There are no ‘new’ ideas
Is it possible to have a new idea? In a world of information overload how can anyone have a thought that hasn’t already been? Following research by Dr Martin Hilbert, it was estimated that in 1986 we were exposed to 40 newspapers’ worth of information every day (if you estimated an 85 page newspaper). In 2007, we were exposed to 174 newspapers’ worth of information every day, and taking into account the explosion of internet traffic growth experienced since 2005, I would expect that that figure has risen considerably.
Estimates state that 295 exabytes pieces of information exist in the world — that equates to 315 times the amount of grains of sand (in the world). So the odds of having an original idea are pretty slim.
With all this information floating around, you may not realise that your idea has been influenced by external sources, but subconsciously, your brain could have processed something it has already seen. This is actually a common occurrence with artists producing a piece of work which they believe to be unique but in reality it is a copy of another piece of art they were exposed to and had forgotten about. The brain subconsciously tricked the artist into believing it was original.
There is a fine line between inspiration and replication
George Harrison famously lost a copyright infringement case for ‘subconsciously’ copying the Ronnie Mack hit, “He’s So Fine” performed by the Chiffons in his song “My Sweet Lord.” This unintentional infringement cost Harrison £1.5 million.
‘Multiple discovery phenomenon’
The ‘multiple discovery phenomenon’ is recognised in the science and technology fields: the same innovation is created at the same time, but in different locations. A simultaneous breakthrough. If you consider that scientists are reading the same research, building with the same materials, using the same technology and drawing from the same cultural influences — coincidence is inevitable.
“I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work. Had I worked fifty, ten or even five years before, I would have failed.” Henry Ford
We learn by copying
How do we learn to talk, write, draw, play the piano? We learn by copying. At school, we slavishly copy notes to reference and study so that we can then begin to expand and begin to think for ourselves. Great artists and writers continue with this process to stimulate their own inspiration: Hunter S Thompson used to type out the Fitzgerald classic The Great Gatsby just to “get the feeling of what it was like to write that way.” Fitzgerald’s novel was continually on his mind while he was working on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Renaissance apprentice painters would train by copying their masters’ work and filling in the scenery in large paintings. This enabled them to perfect their skill, progress and be recognised in their own right: One legend tells of the young Leonardo da Vinci painting an angel so perfectly that his master Verrocchio broke his brushes in two and gave up painting forever in recognition of his pupil’s superior abilities.
‘Copying’ is how we learn – We need copying to build a foundation of knowledge and understanding.
When I was a child, I spent all my time drawing and reading and one of my favourite past-times was replicating cartoons. I was a huge Garfield fan and to practise my drawing skills would spend hours copying drawings so it looked like an exact replication. The hours I spent drawing that cat over and over again taught me composition, character form and how to distort proportions to make ‘cute’ animals.
Today, if I am working on a new project I collate references from other artwork, designs, articles or books which are all on a similar level with what I want to achieve. I break down the composition of each one and dissect what makes it work. Just as Hunter S Thompson retyped The Great Gatsby, this process helps to put you in the optimum state so you can go on to generate your own ideas.
“…Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources…It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone, or any other Important thing and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others…” Mark Twain
Adaptation of existing ideas
What is often seen in creative product development is that a ground-breaking innovation is more likely to fail, as it is seen as too much of a risk. Once the first follower spots the development’s potential and, creates a second generation of the innovation with a few tweaks, this is the product which is most likely to succeed. The most famous example of this being how Apple saw the potential of the Xerox Alto personal computer and, after copying and improving the radical graphical interface, produced the Apple Lisa. It is often said that the genius of Apple is not in their innovation per se, but in Jobs’ ability and measured risk of being the first follower and recognising product potential.
In The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell the phenomenon of trends is discussed, specifically, at what point a product begins to break rank and become a runaway success. According to Gladwell, the majority of huge social trends were not innovative new products, but subtle variations and adaptations of existing ideas.
“The act of creation is surrounded by a fog of myths. Myths that creativity comes via inspiration, that original creations break the mould, that they are the product of geniuses and appear as quickly as electricity can heat a filament. But creativity isn’t magic, it happens by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials.” Kirby Ferguson, Everything is a Remix
Find what inspires you or what you aspire to in terms of work. Analyse it, understand its structure and appeal copy it repeatedly (for your own personal benefit only), try different variations and through your own iterations evolve a unique version. The more you go through the motion of replication, the more your brain will ‘learn’ the process and start to fire up its own unique ideas without having to look to others.
5. Connecting the dots
Code is a means of conveying complex information in a clear and unambiguous manner. This is utilised most effectively in the military, in computer programming and in classic forms of communication such as morse code and semaphore. The code represents in-depth information with simple predetermined key signals.
The advantage of a code system is that large amounts of information can be transmitted efficiently and quickly. Text acronyms such as LMAO, LOL and WTF are examples of code used in everyday situations. During WWII when letter writing was at its peak, sweethearts and lovers would use acronyms such as SWALK (sealed with a loving kiss), HOLLAND (hope out love lasts and never dies) and the racy EGYPT (look it up). In 1879, a code known as the Philips Code was developed for telegraph communication which abbreviated phrases as one and two number digits such as 2: Important business, 29: Private deliver in sealed envelope and the 19th century equivalent of sexting – 88: love and kisses.
Pattern making machine
The brain picks up code from the environment and attempts to make sense by rearranging it into familiar patterns. Patterns are stored through exposure to other patterns. Upon an encounter with an unfamiliar pattern, the brain will run through its catalogue of stored information looking for an exact match or similar pattern. The brain is a natural pattern making machine and connection processor and this is its key to creativity:
The ability to make connections and see relationships between seemingly random elements is the secret to creativity.
Relationships between facts
James Webb Young’s premise for generating ideas (in A Technique For Producing Ideas) is a basic concept:
Collect and be exposed to a variety of reference materials and then look for the relationships between facts. Combine old elements to make new ideas.
It’s not rocket science. In fact, the biggest challenge in being creative and generating ideas is letting go and sitting with the discomfort of waiting for the brain to see the connections.
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.” Steve Jobs
Make an ideas wall – dedicate a space in your environment where you can fill a wall with collated reference material. You can make notes on the pages, use colour-coded pens and use push pins and string to start to make connections visually.
After spending time sitting and studying the wall, your brain will begin to make visual connections.
Pinterest is a convenient tool to collate reference material online, but the physical act of having pages you can touch and move around will stimulate connections and possibilities.
6. No fear
Have you ever watched children playing with dolls or action figures? Their creativity is astounding – creating narratives and interactions between characters for hours with inanimate plastic objects. Children have brilliant creative minds. The problem is that as we grow older and learn to be more self-conscious, we ‘learn’ to fear ridicule for our opinions and our creativity shrivels.
“All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as they grow up.” Picasso
Taught to fear being wrong
Children have no fear of looking foolish or being wrong, they incessantly ask questions about everything and have the benefit of being information sponges. Unfortunately, during the course of education children are taught that mistakes are wrong and being wrong is stigmatised. So we become conditioned to not be wrong – even to the detriment of experimenting with ideas until we find the right solution. We become so afraid to fail that we don’t even try.
“If you’re not prepared to be wrong then you will never come up with something original.” Sir Ken Robinson, “Schools Kill Creativity,” TED talk 2006
Many creative and brilliant people come out of the education system thinking they are neither, believing they are not very bright, not talented, not able to contribute any real value to society because the subjects they showed natural talent for and brilliance in were not considered of value and were even stigmatised.
Creativity is educated out of us as we develop.
A leap of faith
The only real fear I have is flying. I have faced my phobia several times by taking the “Fear of Flying” course through BA, more than once. What I find unique and difficult about facing this fear is the commitment to the process and the lack of control. Other types of phobia treatment involve gradual and monitored exposure through stages until you are acclimatised to face the fear full on. With flying, you don’t have that same luxury of acclimatisation, you either get on the plane and take off or you don’t, and once you are on it you can’t get off till it lands again. You have to take a leap of faith and ‘ride it out’ until the plane lands — that makes it a hard phobia to face. Voicing an idea is also a leap of faith that you have to commit to and ‘go along for the ride’ once it’s out there. I agree with Jeff Bezos — it’s better to try and have an idea that is rejected than to not even try at all.
“Failure is an essential component of innovation…I would be haunted by not trying at all. Better to try and fail — I could live with that.” Jeff Bezos
I think we have all encountered a situation where we had to propose an idea or put forward or own thoughts in a group — an art school critique session, a pitch, a work brainstorming session, a discussion in the pub — and felt afraid to voice our opinion. When you put forward a new idea you are exposing your ego to great risk of ridicule. This can be enough for even the hardest of hearts to withhold their ideas because they lack the confidence to speak and thereby get overlooked as ‘not creative.’ But we have to learn to push through this fear and the more we do, the more we become immune to fear and the more our confidence grows.
“If the idea is not at first absurd then there is no hope for it.” Einstein
Fail fast without stigma
A new concept of ‘fail fast’ culture has been emerging in young start-ups who now pride themselves on their ability to make mistakes as quickly as possible and without stigma so then can learn, improve perfect and then move forward even more quickly. If only we could instill the same mentality in the education system.
We can learn from this to be more creative by not being afraid of being wrong. Lateral thinking teaches us to accept being wrong before we find the right solution. When you are trying to be right you are simply relying on existing knowledge. This is not the way to find a new solution or creative ideas.
Of course, inspiration is all well and good, but what about the magic that happens when you have an idea seemingly out of the ether? How do you manage that, how do you replicate it consistently? This is the question that plagues all writers, artists, musicians and professional creatives — anyone who relies on creative ideas for a living.
Disassociate and protect the ego
In Roman culture, it was the belief that intellect and creativity was something external — a gift from the gods via a divine spirit. (The origin for the word ‘genius’ is: attendant spirit present from one’s birth, innate ability or inclination.) This meant that they never took full credit for their work and ideas but saw themselves as blessed channels who gratefully accepted divine intervention. Thus, they protected their egos by removing responsibility and projecting it onto the external spirits. So if you couldn’t think of an idea then it wasn’t your fault — the spirits hadn’t shown up that day. Anxiety removed.
Disconnecting from fear
After the phenomenal success of her book, Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert feels that she is now stigmatised with the ‘follow up book’ syndrome — a position filled with fear and anxiety. She is constantly asked, “Are you afraid you are never going to top that?” and her answer is yes, she is very afraid of this. In her popular TED talk she talks about how she imagines her creativity as something external in order to deal with the pressure of being creative.
Embracing the fear
Joshua Davis talks about the pitfalls of success and how achieving success affected his creative output and his sense of wonder for what he does. “I’ve done it, what do I do now?” he thought after receiving industry acclaim. Several years of producing repetitive work led Davis to the conclusion that “In fear is where my greatest thinking happens.” He challenged himself to push out of his comfort zone and accept a new role, therefore resurrecting his feeling of “I don’t know what I am doing” and once again finding his wonder and passion for his creative work.
“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill
For most people, the fear of failure kills creativity quickly, but for some, it generates a pressure under which they produce their best work. The reason some people excel under pressure is the extra work they put into a project to avoid failure. Whether you break under pressure or not, you have to be prepared to keep working through the discomfort and fear of being wrong to get to the innovative ideas.
Don’t be afraid to fail
“I haven’t failed. I’ve had 10,000 ideas that didn’t work.” Benjamin Franklin
- When brainstorming in a group, set rules that deter any fear or negativity that can squash creativity.
- Allow the most junior person in the room to speak first and then in turn to most senior.
- No criticism or rejection of an idea — anything can be considered.
- Use humour to break any solemnity and encourage playfulness.
- Remove any condescending, overbearing or negative people from the group to encourage a ‘safe’ space to open up.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle
The brain is a muscle and the more you practice thinking skills the more they improve. Scientific evidence shows that synapses forge physical channels through the brain which become stronger and more deeply ingrained the more an action is repeated. Therefore, through repeated thinking skills you can become more creative.
In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell believes that experts and high-flyers have logged at least 10,000 hours of practice in their field before the achieve great success. The best illustration of his theory is about the musical phenomenon that was the Beatles:
“The Beatles had a musical gift, but what made them the Beatles was a random invitation to play in Hamburg…where they performed live as much as five hours a night, seven days a week. Talented? Absolutely. But they also simply put in more hours than anyone else.” Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
Before they went to Germany they were a reasonable band, but upon their return were such experts at playing live they took the world by storm with their polished routine. No overnight success – the Beatles worked hard and learnt through trial and error what worked for them musically.
Hard work, it seems, is the one thing which guarantees creativity.
David Ogilvy was famously hard working, keeping extraordinary hours (read Confessions of an Ad Man) and used to insist on writing endless variations of every headline before he would approve one. His sheer hard work and tenacity is what created the greatest advertising agency of its era on Madison Avenue.
“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Chuck Close
Life experience has more value than qualifications
Even though I went to university myself, I have always been an advocate for life experience over education and for ‘learning on the job.’ I think this prepares you much better for being resourceful, motivated and creative. When you are hungry, tired, have bills to pay and don’t have the luxury of a full-time job, you get creative about earning money. Apart from a six month period when I was officially employed by Hallmark in-house (awful experience in office politics) I have hustled, used my initiative and evolved with creative trends to maintain an income through my own endeavours since leaving university (in 1995). I’m not going to pretend I haven’t made a great deal of mistakes and had a lot of set backs, but 17 years later I am still doing what I love. I have worked exceptionally hard and spent many a night in tears from sheer exhaustion and setbacks. I have learnt the ability to spot a trend, keep evolving and learning and also the resilience to get back up again once I am knocked down. And that is more valuable than my university degree.
“I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” Thomas Jefferson
“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” EB White
Tolerate the discomfort
John Cleese credits much of his creativity to his tenacity and ability to stick with a problem. Cleese says he is prepared to tolerate the discomfort and anxiety associated with problem solving until the right solution is reached and not take the easy ‘first’ solution. Whereas most people want to remove discomfort as quickly as possible and take the first early solution as a means to stop the anxiety — their discomfort is more important than their creativity. Creative research by Donald W MacKinnon supports this theory. MacKinnon’s research also shows that IQ is not relevant to creativity therefore tenacity and process are the key and not natural talent or intelligence.
Idea generation is about following a process and then trusting that the mind will do its job. Letting go of the outcome so that the brain can digest the input of information, find the connections within the ingredients and then when, and only when, it’s ready, it will throw out an idea seemingly from the ether. Waiting for that moment can bring great discomfort and being able to sit with that feeling of anxiety is the ability to wait for the best ideas to form.
“You can’t try to do things, you must simply DO them.” Ray Bradbury
To get into a creative state, find a space where you can be undisturbed. Set an amount of time, ideally 90 minutes (as the brain needs a break after this length of time), and allow your thought process the space and time it needs to work on the problem. Keep working through solutions long after the first solution appears. Even if you think you have found the best solution, generate more ideas until your time runs out. Acknowledge and accept the discomfort of the effort without allowing it to distract your task.
Get into the habit of generating ideas everyday
“The strategy is simple, I think. The strategy is to have a practice, and what it means to have a practice is to regularly and reliably do the work in a habitual way.” Seth Godin
If I want to improve my swim time from a 40-minute mile down to a 30-minute mile, then I have to swim at least three times a week. It isn’t magic — it’s called practise.
At first it’s hard. I feel like I am swimming through treacle, my breathing is laboured and I tire quickly. After only a few weeks, though, my stroke and strength improve as my body becomes fitter and muscle memory ‘learns’ the stroke subconsciously. When I swim two miles it’s always the first mile that is the hardest. When I hit about 70 lengths my body goes into an automatic state. By the 120th length my body has totally taken over and I no longer direct my actions. The same applies to any skill: routine, discipline and action brings you flow.
Practise, practise, practise
As mentioned earlier, the more the brain processes a routine or skill — such as a new language or driving a car — the deeper the synapses physically carve a channel in the brain. Which explains to some degree why when we first learn a skill we have to concentrate intensely and it takes a great deal of energy, but through applied discipline it eventually becomes almost automatic and we don’t appear to think about what we are doing — the subconscious takes over.
Everything becomes easier with practise and repetition.
Creativity can actually thrive in routine and discipline. Since he found great success, Jack White from The White Stripes talks about how he sets himself restrictions and deadlines to encourage creative flow. The freedom that comes hand in hand with not having to work for a living but purely for pleasure can be a double-edged sword, taking away the hunger and allowing ideas to become stagnant.
“Sometimes you just get in there and force yourself to work and something good will come out of it.” Jack White
Ben Hammersley, Editor-at-Large for Wired UK magazine came and spoke at an intimate gathering in Leeds a few years ago. Brilliant speaker: exceedingly personable and good at telling stories. He told an anecdote about how it was his ambition to be a war correspondent whilst he was a journalist at The Times. So he sought advice from his editor and over several drinks confessed his desire to visit war torn countries, risk life and limb and get to the heart of the news. His editor responded with sage advice: If you want to be a war correspondent find a war, and correspond.
Don’t just talk about it, get out there and do it. If you want to be a writer, then write. If you want to be a painter — paint. If you want to be more creative, then simply keep thinking of ideas. They may seem unimaginative or uninspired at first, but the more you do it the better you get. Until one day you realise you are creative and have great ideas.
“Do. Or do not. There is no try. ” Yoda
James Altucher sets a task to think of ten new ‘things’ everyday. Those can range from ten new flavours of coffee to ten ways to make my partner happy to ten ways I could get to the moon and back. The process of making yourself think of solutions and ideas on an everyday basis will vastly improve your thinking skills just like going to the gym and training everyday helps me swim a faster mile.
“One percent inspiration, Ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Thomas Edison
“Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.” Gretchen Rubin http://gretchenrubin.com/
As above. Same time. Every day. Sit and write a list of ideas on any random subject and set a goal of ten ideas — sounds much easier than it is!
9. Letting go
And finally, let go of your ideas. Do not hold onto them. The law of the universe abhors a vacuum so the more you release, the more the space will be replenished.
“If you hoard your ideas, you will end up living off your reserves and eventually become stale. If you give away everything you have, you are left with nothing. This forces you to look, to be aware, to replenish. The more you give away the more comes back to you.” Paul Arden
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” Maya Angelou
- Creativity is not talent, it’s a way of operating
- Be prepared to be wrong before you are right
- Be an information sponge
- Always be curious and asking questions
- Be open, not closed
- Always carry a notebook and make notes
- Imitate to innovate — learn by copying
- Connect the dots
- Be prepared to fail before you succeed
- Tolerate the discomfort of thinking hard
- Work at it every day
- Don’t hoard ideas — the more you give away the more will be replenished
Best books about creativity
Edward De Bono, Lateral Thinking
Dave Trott, Creative Mischief
David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man
Paul Arden, It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be
Claude C Hopkins, My Life in Advertising
Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point
Simon Sinek, Start with Why?
Michael Gelb, How to think like Leonardo da Vinci
James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas
Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds
Best videos about creativity
El Bulli documentary
Sir Ken Robinson, How Schools Kill Creativity, TED talk
Elizabeth Gilbert, Your Elusive Creative Genuis, TED Talk
John Cleese, What Is Creativity
Stefan Sagmeister, The Power of Time Off, TED Talk
Jack White, Creativity and Restriction
Everything is a Remix – four part series
Chris Rock, Louis C.K., Jerry Seinfeld and Ricky Gervais: Know Your Audience
Simon Sinek, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, TED talk
Joshua Davis: Never Let Success Get In The Way of Creativity
Steve Jobs, How to Live Before You Die, Stanford University Commencement Speech
JK Rowling, The Fringe Benefits of Failure, Harvard Commencement Speech