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Articles tagged “inspiration”

Embracing uncertainty in creative work

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I have no idea if what I’m working on is right, more than half the time.

Arguably, it’s the same for any of the creative individuals we look-up to as well. Austin Kleon is an artist and writer I admire, and it seems that lately almost everything he does is golden, but I’m willing to bet he’s simply doing things he enjoys doing, without any preconception of whether or not they’re “creative” or going to be “successful” or not.

Just look at the lives led by Picasso, Einstein, Jobs, Chanel, O’Keeffe, and others; they never pursued creating something like they did. Rather, they focused their efforts on the things they felt drawn to: right or wrong, path to fame or not.

And really this is worth repeating endlessly: creativity (and creative success) requires that we embrace the notion of uncertainty, that we pursue endeavors because we feel drawn to do so. Little else can do us as well as remembering this point.

You don’t need to know if what you’re doing is right, to be creative. You just have to do.

Pursuing creativity for the sake of being creative is like chasing a ball down a steep hill. Your better making your way down the hill at your own pace and meeting the ball at the bottom.

Read this next: At the heart of creativity: curiosity and uncertainty



“You’ll become known for doing what you do. It’s a simple saying, but it’s true.” Jonathan Harris

The only way to become is to do, and the best way to do is to do what you can, with what you have now. Start.

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You can have the perfect process, but without a purpose it will do you no good.

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The trouble with creative inspiration

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Inspiration is troublesome, particularly if you’re actively pursuing it in hopes that it can help you accomplish something.

In his book, The Design Method, Eric Karjaluoto explains the trouble with inspiration:

“The problem with inspiration is that it’s random, which leads you to focus your hope on outside influences you can’t rely on…These stimuli aren’t under your control, available on tap, or always relevant to the work at hand. Thinking you can find ideas elsewhere leaves you flipping through magazines and browsing the web, hoping you’ll stumble on a magic cure.”

You may disagree, but it’s hard to argue that inspiration – in the context of hoping it will lead to creative insights – is a wasted effort.

The purpose inspiration should serve is as a fueling source for ideas, not as a quick route to insights.

If you’re not actively working on a project or problem, seeking out inspiration should be viewed as a welcome exercise. In your downtime you should actively be pursuing things that inspire you: exploring new artists or writers, reading strange books, listening to new types of magazines, and generally browsing the Internet or local bookstore for sparks of inspiration.

However, if you’re in the middle of a project and find yourself stuck, spending your time seeking inspiration is a sign you aren’t prepared to do the work itself.

Instead of seeking inspiration from outside influences, we should instead focus our attention on what it is we’re trying to do and how understanding the problem or task can lead to natural insights.

I explored this notion in another article I wrote, titled Where inspiration should sit at the table of design:

“Looking for inspiration is a sign that we may not fully comprehend the problem….by fully exploring the landscape of the problem, the situation that led to it being a problem, and how different solutions will affect the intended outcome, you are much more likely to land on an idea naturally, or know what to look for when you step away from the project for rumination or the enticing search for inspiration.”

Inspiration can certainly be helpful, but it’s more of a resource to utilize before you start your work rather than a solution-finding tool when you’re actively working.

If you find yourself seeking inspiration during a project, consider the fact that the desire to do so may be a symptom of not having a full understanding of what it is you’re trying to do.



At the heart of creativity: curiosity and uncertainty

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If you want to be more creative, pursue your curiosity.

Developing that curiosity may be what sets apart the greatest thinkers and artists – the likes of Picasso, Einstein, Edison, Curie, etc. – apart from… well, everyone else.

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” – Einstein

Why curiosity, and exactly how certain can we be that it’s one of the primary driving forces behind creative thinking?

Among the multitude of domains that entail creativity – everything from painting and poetry, to neuroscience and ecology – there are many different ways in which creativity plays-out. Within those domains there are additional factors at play for every organization and individual, factors which influence whether planning a brainstorming session or simply experimenting would be more beneficial from a creative standpoint.

One factor that dots nearly every one of those domains of creativity is curiosity.

Specifically: each encounter with creativity is one with uncertainty, and the experience entails tackling that uncertainty with an almost insatiable curiosity.

No matter what realm you work in: creativity will involve facing an uncertain moment (or, more likely: moments). Will your writing be effective? Will the experiment work? Will this color clash with this one? What happens when you combine this with that?

Over at Quora, my favorite cognitive scientist Joel Chan explains:

“Creativity is not safe. Safe is applying the well-worn rules of Newtonian mechanics to predict the motion of a ball dropping from your hand, or “solving for x”, or spelling a word. Safe is doing something we know already works. But putting something new into the world (whether it’s entirely new to everyone, or just to you) doesn’t afford you the kind of certainty that applying known solution-guaranteed procedures gives you. It might fail. But it might not, and instead it just might change everything. But there’s no way to know beforehand without putting it out into the world.”

Remaining passionate curious about the world, and pursuing answers in the face of uncertainty, is the single trait all domains interfacing with creativity share.

How do we boost our curiosity?

Apart from asking a lot of questions and surrounding ourselves with new stimulus, one way is to exercise regularly.

In his book, Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance Jonathan Fields gives us a number of ways for embracing uncertainty and fueling our creativity, including exercise:

“Studies now prove that aerobic exercise both increases the size of the prefrontal cortex and facilitates interaction between it and the amygdala…This is vitally important to creators because the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that helps tamp down the amygdala’s fear and anxiety signals. For artists, entrepreneurs, and any other driven creators, exercise is a powerful tool in the quest to help transform the persistent uncertainty, fear, and anxiety that accompany the quest to create from a source of suffering into something less toxic.”

Other methods for boosting our curiosity and ability to manage uncertainty (to increase our creativity) is to place ourselves in situations where uncertainty is common.

This makes sense, as situations where we encounter uncertainty allow us to build a tolerance to it (or, in situations where that’s not the case, find ways of dealing with it).

Traveling to new places (even if it’s just across the street), reading new books or other materials, joining conversations with people we’ve only just met, experimenting with ideas, etc. are all ways to empower our curiosity and increase the likelihood of us stumbling on creative solutions.

Start involving yourself in new situations, where you’ll be faced with uncertainty, if you want to be more creative today.

Read this next: What neuroscience teaches us about creativity

Photo by Ben Raynal.



Jean Polfus: Bridging the gap between ecology and art

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Jean Polfus has found a fairly creative way to combine the aim of ecology with the impact of art.

Jean is an artist, but that’s not her full-time job. She’s actually an ecologist, who looks at the ecosystem and inhabitants of the Northwest Territories in Canada. It’s how she connects creative thinking in art and the science-minded attitude behind ecology that is surprising.

After a traditional path of pursuing evolutionary and environmental biology at Dartmouth College, Jean came to discover that working with the various cultures and languages of her studies presented a unique problem. How do you bridge the communication gaps as well as beliefs of tribes, scientists, and the needs of animals and their systems?

Jean realized that art – specifically drawing and photography – is one answer:

One of my goals is to find innovative ways to bring art and science together through drawings, explanations, illustrations and photography. Though many similarities exist between artists and scientists, I have found that there is a fundamental lack of visual creative thinking in academia. This problem is apparent on all levels of scientific exploration, starting with the initial conception of a project to exchange with other academics, and of course worst of all, communication with the general public.”

“One of my goals is to find innovative ways to bring art and science together through drawings, explanations, illustrations and photography.”

To empower the science behind her work, Jean introduces drawings and paintings into her presentations and brainstorming sessions.

When the people she meets with during her work either don’t speak the language or are leaning too far down a scientific mindset or a historic (or cultural) one, the ability to draw allows everyone to meet in the middle and see the same picture. It’s an effective way of communicating ideas without losing their meaning. In-fact, Jean explains, drawing and presenting photos often develops ideas further.

Using artwork to present concepts and bridge communication gaps has greatly benefited Jean and her work. It’s the type of creative thinking that seems like a no-brainer once you know of it, but (as she’s pointed out) is still very absent in scientific academia and exploration.

“I have learned that appealing visuals have the potential to help local people, who are most affected by management decisions, depict their own understanding about wildlife and understand the western scientific data and results that affect their way of life.”

Jean also explains how her ability to present data in visual formats makes taking action on the information easier:

“I’ve had very good success with using informational graphics to explain the genetic side of my research to the community. Over time I’ve developed better analogies to use as well as clearer visuals that help describe genetic relationships. This has been a crucial part of my research because I want people to understand why I am doing the research and feel confident enough to provide suggestions for how I can improve my sample collection methods and the interpretation of the genetic results.”

Creativity isn’t about art: it’s about using different concepts to bridge the gaps in communication or thinking.

Jean Polfus has done just that by combining her research with her love for art. The result is effective communication and better understanding by those she works closely with and for.

How can you use Jean as an example in order to combine approaches that are usually polar opposites in order to generate creative insights?

Learn more about Jean and her work right here, and follow her on Tumblr at jeanpolfus.tumblr.com.

This article is part of the Creative Something Footsteps series, exploring the stories of creatives from around the world to share insights and wisdom. Submit your story here.