Creative Something


Here’s an exercise for thinking creatively

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How do you get better at thinking creatively?

The answer is how you get better at anything: practice.

But what does creative practice look like?

If creativity is your ability to come up with unique and valuable ideas, practicing creativity is doing that without the context of what makes them unique or valuable. Anything goes.

It can be doodling for 10 minutes or free writing for 5, it can be sitting in a crowded area and making up stories for the people you see, or closing your eyes for 15 minutes to imagine yourself in another country.

To become better at thinking creatively, you simply need to exercise your imagination.

Some of my favorite creative practices involve imagining things in completely different context. For example: while driving to work, I’ll wonder what similarities the cars on the freeway have to toy cars in a child’s play room. I imagine giant hands sweeping across the road and moving cars one way or the other. Or while walking around the office and looking at the tiles on the floor, I’ll think about what would happen if the rules of chess applied to navigating the office, how would that change our interactions here?

To become better at creatively is to make new thinking patterns in your mind. And to do that you simply need to adjust what you see or think about on a regular basis.

Your homework assignment for today is to find one thing and change the context of it. What if it were 100 times bigger? What if the rules that apply to a game applied to that thing? What if there were 1,000 more of that thing?

Blog or otherwise write about how the practice goes for you today and what you learned.

And remember:

“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

Read this next: Seven steps to creative breakthroughs



“You have to be burning with ‘an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right.’ If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.”

Steve Jobs

Posted at 6:34 pm



Worthwhile ideas are 1 in 10,000

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All it takes to turn the amateur into a professional is one piece of work.

Just one days worth of work. One project. But what we don’t commonly see is the hundreds and thousands of other ideas that came before that one.

How many attempts did it take Edison and his team of innovators to turn the lightbulb into something more functional? The rough estimate ૻ based on conjecture – is 10,000.

10,000 attempts before they finally got something that worked!

How many paintings and sketches do you think van Gogh made (and destroyed) before anyone noticed him? Or how many tons of clay did Michelangelo have to go through before he wound up with the statue of David? How many versions of Infinite Jest did David Foster Wallace draft until the final, 1,079 page version shipped? Even more important: how many words did J. K. Rowling have to write before somebody thought it would be worth reading?

It’s easy to believe that one idea is all it takes to make ourselves a creative genius or artist or author. That one idea is what makes or breaks the big guys (and gals).

In reality: it takes hundreds and thousands of attempts until we arrive at where we want to be.

We have to fail, learn, adapt, try something new, explore, fail again, on and on until we’ve got enough momentum under our feet to do something that finally does change us from amateur to pro.

Many of the ideas and the work even takes place subconsciously, as our brains filter and sort through information tirelessly to help us spark the right connection or provoke the right brush stroke or sentence structure.

If your ideas are failing, or your work isn’t getting as far as you’d hoped it would, just remember that it takes many strokes to create a masterpiece, not just one.

It’s a message absolutely worth remembering and repeating.

Read this next: The creative processing your brain won’t tell you about

Illustration by Carl.



“If at first the idea is not absurd, there is no hope for it.”

Albert Einstein

Posted at 2:37 pm



Which attributes really matter for creative success?

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How does anyone become successful at thinking creatively, of generating novel and valuable ideas?

In evaluating what causes creativity, research and anecdotes indicate that there are several important attributes, including: curiosity and openness to new experiences, resourcefulness, ability to be observant, personal drive to take initiative, grit or perseverance, confidence, among others (including some level of luck as well as natural talent).

But which of these traits actually matter for creative success?

Let’s look at the research.

In an article published on Entrepreneur.com, author James Clear argues that grit is the number one defining element of geniuses:

“How do creative geniuses come up with great ideas? They work and edit and rewrite and retry and pull out their genius through sheer force of will and perseverance. They earn the chance to be lucky because they keep showing up…No single act will uncover more creative powers than forcing yourself to create consistently…”

Grit, Clear explains, is what allows creative geniuses to keep pressing on through failures and bad ideas in order to uncover truly valuable concepts.

We see evidence of the value grit – or persistence – plays in any form of success: from sports and academia, to business and relationships. But grit’s particular appeal for creative success has long been spotlighted, most notably from Thomas Edison, who famously quipped: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

Creativity, it appears, absolutely requires diligent work.

Neuroscience researcher and creativity author Jonah Lehrer echoes this sentiment in his 2012 talk at the 99u conference for creatives. Lehrer explains why grit is the most important attribute for creatives to have if they want to be successful:

“Grit is not just about stubborn persistence. It’s also about choosing the right goal in the first place. … The unfortunate reality is that it’s not all going to happen. How can we make sure all our struggle and sacrifice will be worth it? Make sure it passes the underwear test.”

Lehrer tells us the underwear test works like this: think about your underwear for a minute…

“Do you feel it? Are you conscious of it? Of course not. That’s because you’ve adapted to the feel of underwear, habituated to the touch of cotton on your bum…What does this have to do with grit and long-term goals? Well, the only dreams worth pursuing are those that pass the underwear test. These are the pursuits that don’t bore us, even after we put in 10,000 hours of practice.”

No matter what your endeavor may be: if you aren’t invested to make it through the work until the end, you don’t stand a chance at succeeding. Grit matters.

This is especially true for creativity, which regularly entails the act of encountering false positives or discouraging results. For example: Thomas Edison and his team of inventors tested some thousand or more variations of filament for their lightbulb before ending up with the unique carbon version.

Many inventors worked on their own versions of the lightbulb, but it was Edison and his team who stuck through countless experiments in order to wind-up at the most promising (at the time) conclusion.

Edison’s belief in the 99% of having a good idea entailing diligent work would seem appropriate.

But what exactly is grit, and what is the role it plays in creative ability?

MacArthur Genius grant receiver and psychologist Angela Duckworth – whose work is the primary focus in the book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character – explains:

“Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance. And I want to emphasize the stamina quality of grit. Grit is sticking with things over the long term and then working very hard at it.”

Duckworth continues to explain how understanding the changing structure of both our minds and the problems we work on impacts grit:

“So far, the best idea I’ve heard about building grit in kids is something called growth mindset. This is an idea developed at Stanford University by Carol Dweck, and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed. That it can change with your effort. Dr. Dweck has shown that when kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.”

This is a crucial point: grit matters when it’s aligned with the understanding that our abilities – our talents and efforts – are continuously changing.

When the ability to keep working, even in the face of failure, is paired with the understanding that concepts, opinions, and processes can change, creative likelihood increases.

Then we encounter arguments against the value of grit in creative success, such as that from associate director of the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas, Magdalena G. Grohman. Grohman explains that grit doesn’t come into play until after the creative work has already started. How can grit matter, Grohman argues, if no action has taken place to begin with? “Creative achievement and grit, intellectual creativity and grit, everyday creativity and grit: no effects whatsoever.”

The problem, Grohman explains, is that the role grit plays in creative success is defined by a person’s ability to take action in the first place. To Grohman, openness to new experiences is the defining trait that makes creative successes possible.

There’s undoubtedly truth to this (seemingly counter) belief as well: being open to try new things – one of the big five personality traits – allows creativity to thrive. Without new experiences, without being open to new possibilities in our work, our brains have limited information upon which to build and explore.

What is openness to experiences?

Over at the 99u website, psychologist Art Markman defines it as: “the degree to which a person is willing to consider new ideas and opportunities.”

In his book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, Scott Barry Kaufman explains how openness is one of the single most common attributes in creative geniuses.

On BusinessInsider.com, Drake Baer discusses the implications with Kaufman:

“Openness is about ‘valuing information,’ he says. ‘People with high openness show high dopamine projections at the potential of acquiring information.’ In other words, the higher you score on the ‘openness’ trait, the better it feels to learn new things.”

Baer and Kaufman then dive into research to connect openness to experience with creativity:

“One theory is that it has to do with “latent inhibition,” or your mind’s tendency to filter out information as irrelevant. In one study, Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson found that college students who were high creative achievers were seven times more likely to have reduced instead of enhanced latent inhibition. People with high openness tend to have low latent inhibition, and thus more original ideas, or so the argument goes.”

To be creative you need to be open to new experiences, which leave you open to imaginative and occasionally complex possibilities. Kaufman goes as far as to break down openness into four individual factors, including:

  1. Explicit Cognitive Ability, viewed as traditional IQ intelligence. 2. Intellectual Engagement, a natural drive to engage ideas. 3. Affective Engagement, using emotions to drive decisions. And 4. Aesthetic Engagement, a preference for aesthetics.

How engaged you are using each of these factors reflects how open you are to new experiences.

In research conducted by researchers Paul Silvia, Emily Nusbaum, Christopher Berg, Christopher Martin, and Alejandra O’Connor, an individual’s placidity to thinking correlated high with their ability to generate creative ideas.

The more flexible your thoughts – your ability to be open to new experiences – the more creative you are likely to be.

But how does openness relate to grit?

What really matters most for creative success?

A better question might be: what about the other critical elements of creativity, like play, flow, curiosity, ability to take initiative, resourcefulness, etc.? Which of those matter the most?

The answer is this: it depends.

To be more precise: the elements of creative thinking that link directly to creative success depend on which part of the process you’re in exactly. One does not trump the other or vice-versa.

Those who have many of the primary attributes of creative capability – openness to experience, curiosity, observant, of average or higher intelligence, initiative, grit, confidence, and resourcefulness – will be most likely to experience creative success.

We can see ample examples of this throughout history: think of any of the creative greats and you’ll undoubtedly be able to identify nearly all of the traits (if not all) in them.

There may be no better example of this point than the great Michelangelo.

Michelangelo is best known for his paintings, but he was also an avid inventor, architect, poet, and engineer. He rarely moved beyond artistic endeavors, but was very open to receiving inspiration in any form. He had remarkable grit, working 40 years on The Pope’s Tomb, never satisfied with the result. While he was highly an introvert, he was amiable and confident.

How is this the case? How is it that one attribute of creative success does not fully overshadow the other, but all work in-sync to produce the most promising results?

You can look at it like a timeline of attributes.

The Timeline of Necessary Creative Attributes

On on end, at the beginning of a project or phase, there are attributes which lead to insights. At this end of the timeline we would see these attributes:

  • Openness to experience
  • Imagination
  • Curiosity
  • Intelligence

Without one or more of these attributes, the rest of the timeline cannot exist. These matter. But in terms of success, what attribute is required next is universal:

  • Initiative, or drive

The ability to take initiative – to tinker and explore an idea, or to play with imaginary solutions – is the keystone of creativity.

You must first be open to experiences and be curious about the world around you, once you’ve encountered something that captures your attention, you must take initiative to explore it in detail. Without initiative or drive, all of the openness and exploration in the world won’t matter.

Moving further on the timeline we reach the additional attributes:

  • Grit
  • Confidence
  • Resourcefulness

At this point in the timeline we have encountered something that has peaked our interest, we have compiled enough information about it and the world to generate ideas, we have taken action in the form of thinking or experimenting, and now we must persevere to explore the idea fully.

This means we must have confidence in our ability to resolve the issue or fully explore the concept. We must be resourceful, utilizing what information and tools we have around us. And most importantly: we must have grit. We must persevere to keep exploring until we are satisfied (or deceased, in the case of Michelangelo.

This timeline of attributes makes sense on nearly all levels of creativity. When many of the elements are missing, we cannot have creative success.

You cannot be successful if you have grit but aren’t open to experiences. Similarly: you cannot be creatively successful if you are curious but do not take initiative.

What matters for creativity is that you have each of these attributes – in some form or another.

The good news is that each of these are attributes you can develop, they are not innate traits like the color of your hair or the size of your feet.

To be creatively successful is to develop these necessary attributes, then utilize them as you progress through your work or career.

Read this next: What causes creativity

More reading on the subject:

If your idea doesn’t pass the underwear test, you probably won’t be successful

Grit and the secret of success

Grit May Not Spur Creative Success, Scholars Say

Which Traits Predict Success? (The Importance of Grit)

This Personality Trait Is The Most Important Driver Of Creative Achievement



You need to be more decisive to produce more creativity

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In my years of working alongside the most successful artists, writers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and educators, one factor that separates them from everyone else is their ability to be decisive.

Decision-making is difficult for many people, particularly these days, when we face more decisions than ever. In the average grocery store, for example, there are nearly 40,000 products we have to walk past just to get to what we need. How do we decide which brands to buy and which to ignore?

In his book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel Levitin describes the cost of indecision, not only from a productivity level, but also from a neuropsychology one:

“Neuroscientists have discovered that unproductivity and loss of drive can result from decision overload… We can have trouble separating the trivial from the important, and all this information processing makes us tired…Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport, or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.”

The result of facing countless decisions day-in and day-out is a literal fatigue.

When we encounter the vast array of decisions, and as our mental state begins to grow tired as a result, we lose our ability to think creatively. Attempting to resolve the choice between horse hair paintbrushes or artificial fiber brushes may leave the painter with an inability to even sit in front of the canvas, let alone paint anything worthwhile.

Our mental attention is a finite resource, one that we must work with carefully if we’re to develop our creative ideas and work.

Which is why the best creatives don’t debate decisions. Instead, we decide what might be “good enough” in the moment and make changes as necessary.

Free writing allows the writer to get the story developed without having to build-out the perfect structure – debating between character names, genders, locations, and other details – first. Similarly, the artist who paints with any available color can later go back and try again if the color doesn’t strike her as appropriate.

Often it’s through the act of doing the creative work (of thinking the creative thoughts) that the final work or ideas develop themselves. When we spend time debating or letting our attention jump from one concept to the next unfiltered, we wear ourselves out and wind-up short of where we ideally would be if we had otherwise just been decisive to begin with.

In addition, we can utilize what Levitin describes as layers between us an our decisions: “narrowers” for our attention filter.

This involves collaborating with peers or mentors, who can tell us what tools to use or techniques to deploy when we’re faced with a decision. Or even relying on blogs or websites where those who have come before us can identify solutions to problems we know we’ll encounter while we work.

Ultimately if you want to be more creative, consider the way you think and where you allow your attention to flow. If you find yourself being indecisive, remember that it comes at a cost.

The better alternative is to decide what’s good for now, then adapt as you go.

Read this next: Your decisiveness and ability to create

Photo by Paul Wicks.