“One of the reasons I like keeping a logbook is that it makes time tangible. Turn the pages, and you can feel the days pass.”
Imagine that you have a transparent, plastic cup placed in front of you and thousand of brightly colored jelly beans off to the side of it.
Your job is to fill the cup up. You take one jelly bean at a time and place it into the cup, one after another stacking them sporadically until the cup is a mess of color.
When the filled cup is held in front of you, all you can see is the color of the beans on the outside, right? As you spin the cup in your hand you can see the other colors of the jelly beans that dot the inner perimeter as well. Maybe, if you try hard enough, you can make out the faint colors of jelly beans behind the outer most ones.
What happened to the jelly beans at the center of the cup? They’re there, undoubtedly, but what colors are they?
This is how creativity in the mind works. Every day new thoughts and ideas fill our brains, in the form of our senses reacting to our experiences. Our eyes alone send hundreds of thousands of signals to our brain every second.
To be creative is to ask what color of “jelly beans” have been tucked away in the center of our minds.
Back in front of our imaginary cup, you have to shake it up in order to move all the beans around and see what’s inside. The brain, too, needs to be mentally shaken (not physically) in order to uncover what’s hidden away inside.
By asking questions that start with “what if?”, “how would?” and “why?” we shake the ideas in our brain in order to see what other ideas have been hidden beneath. By adjusting our perspective, rattling our knowledge, exploring new and exciting areas, that’s how we shake our mental jar of beans.
It’s through uncovering those hidden ideas, by shaking our thoughts, that new insights become available to us.
Sure, you could be content to admire the ideas on the perimeter, but if you instead wonder what’s inside, you’re bound to find a lot more color.
Photo by Steve Koukoulas.
“I don’t know.”
Those are three very powerful words. They help us to explore new territory, push past boundaries, and face our fears.
Admitting that you “don’t know” allows you to be more creative than those who do. The naivety of not knowing makes it easier to overcome difficult problems, because you don’t know whether or not the ideal outcome is possible yet. You’ll explore and tinker until the pieces fall into place or don’t, whereas experts won’t even attempt to explore because they already know what’s possible and what’s not. To quote author Steven Farmer: “With no expectations anything can become.” Not knowing is a creative asset, it should be pursued and harnessed.
Of course, not knowing can be a hinderance to productivity as well.
Not knowing means you know that you’re going to make mistakes. It means that you’re walking into a moment that is both cold and dark, where you’re not sure whether you can come out on the other end or not. Not knowing can be paralyzingly frightening.
It’s those who are able to push pass the fear of the unknown that reap the rewards.
Sure, you might fail, you might reach a dead-end, you may even temporarily embarrass yourself. But if the alternative is to discover completely new solutions, to learn more and expand your potential, to do what nobody else is doing, it seems that not knowing what you’re doing (and doing it anyway) is worthwhile anyway.
You’re facing your fears when you admit “I don’t know,” you’re also embarking on a quest to do something very much worthwhile.
Photo by Andreas Overland
“Everybody has crazy things they want to try. Part of creativity is picking the little bubbles that come up to your conscious mind, and picking which one to let grow and which one to give access to more of your mind, and then have that translate into action.”
Nancy Andreasen’s Secrets of the Creative Brain
A pen and paper, or a digital notepad, are undoubtedly some of the absolute most powerful tools a creative worker can have.
Actually, writing tools are some of the most valuable tools anyone can have.
The reason why writing matters for creativity is simple enough to understand. When you go about your day-to-day your brain is automatically consuming, filtering, and sorting through information. Most of the thoughts you have throughout the day are ignored by your lower level consciousness. i.e. You have thoughts you don’t even realize you have.
Unfortunately the value of those missed thoughts is lost. Again: without us even realizing it.
We’re unable to solve a problem or come up with an original idea because the information that could feed our solution is being filtered out, mentally ignored. That means creative insights are less likely to occur as a result of day-to-day thinking, when we’re not aware of the thoughts running through our own mind.
One way to combat this automatic filtering and sorting process in the brain is to work around it through free writing exercises.
Free writing allows you to capture your stream of thinking without first filtering all of the information.
During free writing, your brain is occupied with the act of writing itself – moving the pen across the page or your fingers over the keyboard – as well as the objective of creating at least somewhat of a flow to what you’re writing. So much so that there isn’t much energy or room for the standard filtering process to take place.
Free writing steps over our mental filtering processes to unveil our more basic thoughts. Of course, at some magnification this isn’t true (or at all possible), but on the face of things the argument stands.
It’s through this overcoming mental filtering that writing helps us to clarify our thoughts and explore possibilities too. When we free write, we control our focus in a way that allows the brain to look just outside of our scope without the burden of staying too-focused.
If you find yourself creatively stuck or digging for new ideas, free writing may be all you need to move forward.
In addition to getting unstuck, writing can help us feel grounded to a situation or event. Seeing written thoughts on a page allows us to manipulate them in a more tangible way than merely thinking can. Rather than trying to imagine how a situation might play out, for example, we can write the words down and then expand on them with additional words (or by erasing or deleting words). This act is ideal for capturing ideas as well as exploring them in depth.
A daily journal, for example, allows us to sort through feelings and situations in a way we otherwise could not. When we write down a problem we’re having or a victory we have achieved, we are able to explore those feelings without the mental filtering process and without the burden of having to sort through so many varied thoughts. In this way, writing allows us to relieve our minds of those situations and make room for newer ones.
Similarly, when we use the likes of sticky notes or a moleskin journal for capturing ideas, that frees up room in our mind for other ideas without risking the loss of previous ones.
I created an app to help this process along, it’s called Prompts.
Even the best ideas must be sorted and stored in the recesses of the mind. No matter how great we think our ideas may be – no matter how hard we believe “I’ll remember this later“ – the brain is a machine that makes the calls, and ideas are regularly shuffled away into places both dark and distant.
If you’re hoping to sort through your thoughts, solve a problem, or have more ideas, try writing.
Photo by Jeffrey Pacres.