Creativity requires a delicate balance of primarily these eight things. If you’re not feeling particularly creative, evaluate which of these might be off balance for you.
“Reading, conversation, environment, culture, heroes, mentors, nature—all are lottery tickets for creativity. Scratch away at them and you’ll find out how big a prize you’ve won.”
Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
Being more creative requires creativity in the first place.
Creativity is less about critique and more about creation. You should never mix the two.
However, there comes a point with any creative work where there has to be a critique in some form. The critique will come either by yourself, from peers, or from customers or audience. Sometimes you’ll be invited to critique other’s creative work as well, of course.
It becomes critically important to know how to critique well. If you can effectively critique your own ideas or work in a constructive way, you’ll end up feeling empowered and driven, with more insights into what to do than what not to do. If you can critique other’s work with equal prowess, you’ll learn about yourself and your style from the critique, as well as become the go-to person for feedback in the future (expanding your personal network).
Learning to critique well is just as much of an art as the art work itself. It requires both skill and practice. But here are three tips to serve as a starting point:
1. Know when the right time for critique is
For some ideas, a critique is vital in the first few stages, after the idea has come about and just begun to develop. For others, it’s only after an idea has reached a more concrete, completed phase that it can effectively be evaluated.
The right time for a critique depends entirely on the context.
If, for example, you’re about to critique the results of your own brainstorming session, it’s likely better to wait until as many ideas are already out in the open as possible before critiquing them; otherwise you stand in the way of possible ideas making themselves known.
This makes sense, as the creation mindset is very different from the critiquing mindset; one requires free-roaming thoughts and a certain openness to what comes as a result, while the other relies on pre-existing concepts for evaluation and comparison. It’s surprisingly difficult to move from one to the other and then back again.
Likewise, if you’re evaluating another person’s work it’s important to know where they’re at with it before you begin evaluation. Do they feel as though the work is entirely complete and ready for a full critique? Or are they feeling stuck on a certain element and hoping your opinion can help them see something they otherwise wouldn’t see? In which case the critique you give should not be a full critique of the work, but solely of where the creator is currently at with it.
The company 42floors refers to this approach as Thirty Percent Feedback, and it’s very well worth exploring.
Before critiquing any work, first identify what the concrete goal of the critique is. Outline where in the process of creation you are. Only then can you consider beginning an effective critique.
2. Be constructive, not opinionated
Avoid using words like good and bad, or phrases like “I like that” when critiquing.
When you avoid these words, your critique becomes centered on the concrete reasons behind why your reaction to the idea or work is what it is. It’s those reasons that can be further explored and – most importantly ” acted on.
For example, If I looked at a project and stated: “I don’t like the colors,” that’s not a critique. Such a statement is simply unhelpful criticism. On the other hand, if I explicitly say something like: “The colors look overly muted and that makes me feel like they conflict with the message you’re trying to convey in the work” then suddenly there’s a starting point for discussion and exploration in the work. It’s clear from that statement what needs to be either discussed or acted on next.
When evaluating ideas it’s crucial to do the same. Our gut reaction to something (whether we like it or not) is certainly worth noting, but don’t merely cross ideas off a list because your first reaction is that they’re no good. Instead, take that feeling (of an idea being good or bad) and ask yourself why you feel that way, what is it about the idea that makes you not like it?
3. Invite critiques from your community
The purpose of a critique is often to see aspects of your work or ideas that you couldn’t see yourself.
Presenting the work for critique from a larger community of trusted peers (when the work is ready, of course) is the quickest way to get outside perspective. It’s from those outside perspectives that we learn and grow.
Finding a community that understands these fundamentals to critiquing is just as important as opening yourself up to the critique.
Fortunately quality communities exist and criticisms can be sorted through virtually. Sites like Behance, Quora, even Tumblr and Twitter are all worthwhile for inviting critiques.
No matter where you’re at with your work, a time for critique will come. Ensure you’re prepared.
Photo by Kevin Dooley.
Writer’s block should be taken serious.
Some people like to tout that block is “all in your head” and that fact makes it popular to believe there’s no such thing as writer’s block.
Yet research has shown that writer’s block is very real. It may be a psychological block in the brain, but so is agraphia: a very real, physical brain disability that prevents communication entirely.
Famed writer of the early 1900s, F. Scott Fitzgerald, (who you’ll remember wrote “ The Great Gatsby”) struggled so viciously with writer’s block that he led himself into believing that inspiration was a finite resource; a well that, after some use, would dry up for good.
There are other types of blocks outside of writer’s block too. Sculptors block, dancers block, composers block. All very real psychological blocks that we often feel powerless to overcome.
Yet, for writers, block is arguably more vital to beat than any other form of block. It isn’t enough to brush it aside saying: “It’s all in your head, so get over it.” Why?
Writers write to communicate. Writing is a clear form of expression, but more than that: it’s often the writer’s way of communicating. More often than not writing is the only form of communication the writer feels comfortable with, particularly in the case of professional writers.
A writer that feels block isn’t simply feeling stuck. He or she feels as though they truly cannot communicate. Block isn’t about simply being unable to write, for the writer, block can sometimes feel like the equivalent of being unable to suddenly move a limb, or – in some cases – being unable to breathe. Wrier’s block is very really debilitating. It’s not something we should brush aside lightly.
There are distinctions worth making here, between a writer who finds herself unable to write, and someone else who is simply unable to write.
In “The Midnight Disease” author Alice Flaherty describes the difference between a writer who has block and someone who else who is stuck as such:
“Someone who is not writing but not suffering does not have writer’s block; he or she is merely not writing.”
For writer’s, block is something that must be dealt with, not effortlessly brushed aside.
In her book, Flaherty explores the numerous reasons for a writer to feel stuck. She lists external causes as a common reason for writer’s to experience block.
External causes for writer’s block are difficult for the writer to identify, for the fact that external blocks are ones that we form in our own heads based on external feedback. Feedback that we may not be paying conscious attention too. Though that’s not always the case.
Flaherty shares the story of novelist Paul Kafka-Gibbons: “[Gibbons] decided to take a relaxing summer off from writing his novel. He then spent those months wrestling with his psychoanalyst who thought he should face the fact that he had writer’s block.”
External pressures to write can lead us into believing that we’re the ones at fault, that we’re stuck because we’re lacking in talents, because we haven’t nothing worthwhile to write, or for deeper reasons.
In the case of student writers who feel stuck, the external drive may not be any person, but the subject itself.
Flaherty writes: “Students who seem blocked often turn out instead to have a secret dislike of their subject ” or their teacher, or their parents.”
Or, in the case of non-writers who dream of writing, the societal pressures can be internalized effortlessly. The result of external pressures is that the writer doesn’t feel as though he or she has anything valuable to say, and so doesn’t write. “I’m not a writer,” the belief goes, “so I can’t write.”
Outside of external causes there are other, more internal, reasons for writer’s block as well.
Researcher Mike Rose has a few leading theories on the subject. One of his primary theories for writer’s block is that writers place debilitating rules over their work. These rules ” which can often take shape subconsciously, on their own, without our knowing ” hinder our ability to write. Rules like avoiding sentence fragmentation, following a certain rhythm, or the editing too early.
In the end, the reasons for writer’s block varies from writer to writer.
What is commonly believed among researchers and writer’s alike is that block is predominantly an imbalance between the cognitive desire for writing and the emotional need.
Either the higher-process thinking of cognitive writing has tuned-out the emotional appeal (which can result in raw, but unemotional and un-energetic writing), or the emotional process has taken control and the ideas for writing become too uninhibited, more about “expression” and less about “communication” as Flaherty describes it.
Knowing what we know now, we can look to the array of options for getting unstuck. Because of the many reasons for block, there is an equal number of solutions for overcoming it.
On one hand are cognitive solutions. You’ve undoubtedly heard them before: mind maps, brainstorming, editing other’s work, etc.
On the other hand are more strict solutions, such as Chekhov’s rifle: the notion that every element of your story be essential and utterly irreplaceable. “A rifle hanging on the wall in the first chapter must be fired by the third.”
What other effective solutions are there for writer’s block?
In recent years applications have been developed to help writer’s overcome block in a number of ways. I even created an app that provides creative prompts to help you keep writing whenever you may feel stuck or unable to start.
Workshops can be helpful in the context they give to both the writer and the writer’s work. A supportive structure to write in can help remove external pressures, while the knowledgable criticism of an experienced working group can be what you need to overcome internal rules or pressures you’ve placed on yourself.
Breaking tasks into smaller chunks
Often the thought of writing a novel – or even a series of pages – can be daunting enough to cause block. An effective solution is to break your task down into smaller, more manageable chunks. Rather than looking at the writer’s job as that of creating a large volume of text, look at it as simply to write a single paragraph. Then to write another, onward until a story begins to form naturally.
Addressing the fears of writing
Rejection and failure are the two biggest fears any writer faces. Often those fears cripple without us knowing. The solution is simple: take time to sit down and think about what your fears of writing may be and what you can do to overcome them. More often than not the fears are irrational (or don’t outweigh the potential benefits of writing). In the end, the best option is to get out of your own way.
Change your environment
It’s amazing what a subtle shift in environment can do for the creative person. In a cafe the noise may be enough to distract you, but it might also help to have people looking over your shoulder to see that you are, in fact, making progress on whatever it is you’re doing. Your environment can make a huge difference.
A dozen more things
From “The Midnight Disease” Flaherty uncovers more promising and practical efforts for overcoming writer’s block:
“Edit something you wrote the day before, always stop at an easy spot, start with an outline that gets more and more elaborate until it becomes your text, start with stream of consciousness writing, don’t edit too early, drink lots of coffee, take a break.”
When it comes down to it, the absolute best way to deal with writer’s block is two fold: first, experiment. Try any of the options listed above, or even seek professional counseling – as many prolific writers of the past have had to do for their block. The second part of overcoming writer’s block is habits.
Form a habit for writing. It doesn’t much matter what your habits consist of, only that they exist. A quality writing habit helps overcome nearly all of the pressures that have been known to cause writer’s block. External pressures are defunct because they have no part in your habits, and internal pressures can be made powerless as a result.
Creativity is, after-all, like riding a bike. The only way to effectively learn to ride it is to get on regularly and practice. Habits should be your practice.
Photo by Jochen Handschuh.
Creativity may be wildly complex to describe, but when we look over the past few decades of research and historical examples of it at work, some surprisingly powerful insights popup.
One such area: creative development.
In-fact: developing creativity has been a primary topic for psychologists since the early 1970s. Partly because it’s difficult to encourage creative development without hindering it or messing up the process of evaluation.
We have to be careful in talking about developing creativity then, because any misstep or misinterpretation can yield the exact opposite results we are hoping for.
For example: I recall reading a story of a school classroom where the teacher wanted to develop the student’s creativity. In hopes of having the children freely express themselves, she gave them each crayons and coloring books for an afternoon of drawing.
Many of the students expressed their creativity by drawing additional characters and objects on the coloring book pages or by using unique color combinations. One student, however, had to be told explicitly to stop drawing inside the lines.
There was no indication that drawing inside the lines was in any way uncreative, the teacher simply wanted the student to appear creative, and drawing inside the lines seemed too uncreative. Yet, by intervening and requiring that the student draw outside the lines, the teacher squashed the possibility for the student to be creative simply by being unique (a very definition of creativity). Drawing outside the lines couldn’t be creative, as it was now an established requirement.
So developing creativity can be difficult, even when we’re the ones doing it to ourselves. Fortunately, after many decades of research, we have enough insight to outline the best possible ways for doing exactly what the teacher in that classroom hoped, but ultimately failed, to do.
Enter the psychology of development
Some of the most notable research on the topic of creative knowledge comes from psychologist Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis.
In his 1999 research paper “Creativity as Blind Variation and Selective Retention” Simonton writes on the topic of talent development:
“Any developmental factor that enhances the capacity of an individual to generate numerous and diverse variations should have a positive impact on the development of creative potential.”
The easiest ” and, as Simonton states, most obvious ” way to develop creativity is to gain expertise. This is obvious because expertise exposes us to a lot of the fundamental possibilities in a specific area, which gives us plenty of ammunition for creativity later on.
Expertise however does take a long time (about a decade of work, according to cited research). More importantly: creative expertise has specific, delicate requirements in order to develop properly.
Simonton writes: “The expertise must be organized in a way that it favors the production of multiple perspectives, and that expertise must be possessed by an individual willing to develop divergent variations.”
He then gives us examples from his research on how we can best develop our own creative expertise.
1. Have a lot of varied interests
It seems counter-intuitive on the face, but countless examples throughout history show that the best way to have creative expertise in any one area is to have a bit of experience in a lot of other areas as well.
Simonton points to the fact that having a variety of interests and experiences allows us to fill our minds with ideas that, when combined subconsciously, are more likely to yield stronger ideas. Those stronger ideas would not be possible if we simply stuck to one expertise or interest. He writes:
Many of the most innovative ideas in a domain often have received their initial training in other fields. This [diverse knowledge] allows the innovators to proliferate variations that would be excluded a priori by those who received their training totally within the discipline.
We only have to look to the famed painter Leonardo da Vinci to see that this is the case.
Da Vinci wasn’t merely an exceptional painter, his historic work in the areas of sculpture, architecture, engineering, geology, music, botany, and writing (amongst others) influenced history. His numerous interests gave him ideas and insights in every other area of interest he had, ensuring that there was always something he was working on or learning that could, in turn, help solve or complete another problem or project.
We know this as a fact due to the countless journals he kept where writings about grocery lists included sketches, and where ideas for inventions were matched with architectural notes.
Simonton mentions this point as well: It is characteristic of highly creative individuals that they tend to work simultaneously on a large number of loosely interconnected problems….Hence, while the creator is incubating on one problem, he or she will be constantly but haphazardly bombarded with priming input from other projects.
If you want to develop your creative expertise, work to develop in other areas of interest at the same time.
2. Gain multiple perspectives
Some of the greatest minds in the world understand that the world is not merely as we see it.
Steve Jobs even said that once you understand ">this simple idea, you’ll never be the same.
In order to value multiple perspectives we must avoid institutionalized thinking and have more of an open mind about our work.
“Even though formal education may be necessary to provide the minimal expertise for achievements as a creative individual, such training can go too far as well, restricting the diversity of perspectives required for true creative success.”
Simonton doesn’t give us an exact alternative to formal education or training here, but we can guess what possibilities may be.
Making an effort to learn things on your own, with at least some guidance or insight provided by a diverse community or group, will enable you to see and hear different perspectives while learning how they impact your creativity.
This, combined with a variety of interests, is a key to developing creativity.
To improve your creative expertise, join a local community or group where you can work at your own pace but utilize the wisdom of the crowd to do so.
3. Set and regularly reset your goals
Creativity is a moving target, due to knowledge growth, adaptation in culture, technological advancement, shifts in perspective, and so on.
Researchers like Simonton know this. Even in his writings Simonton states that becoming a known expert in the area of creativity is difficult to do, simply for the reason that the definition of creativity is constantly evolving. While a creative idea may be successful one day, it could become a flop the very next. One idea today might seem impossible, but within a few years that same idea could be expected.
A good example of this is the iPhone. If you were to somehow go back in time to 1999 (when Simonton’s most prominent work was published, coincidentally), then ask people (even Steve Jobs himself) what they thought of the idea for a phone that had no buttons and could browse the Internet, they would have laughed at you. There’s no way those who lived in 1999 could envision the technology we have available to us today, in 2014.
This means that developing our own creativity requires us to set goals for evaluating our ideas and work, then regularly evaluating and moving those goals. As Simonton explains:
“If the standards of creative success are sufficiently simple and well defined, and if disciplinary evaluations are consistent, stable, and precise, then certainly persons might become sufficiently expert.”
Expertise takes time. If you haven’t been cultivating your creative abilities for years already, you’ve got a long way to go.
Fortunately there are things you can do, beginning today, to ensure you’re developing your expertise the right way.
By having a lot of varied interests, by participating in a broader community that helps you see the power of multiple perspectives, and by setting and regularly evaluating your creative goals, you’ll be on your way.
Photo via Flickr.