Creativity often comes from discomfort

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Creativity comes to those who want or need it. Those who are hungry for change, something different, a shake up.

Comfort is debilitating when it comes to creative thinking. The act of creativity thrives in moments of tension, when there is struggle there is an opening for creativity.

You cannot merely will creativity. You cannot "try harder" to cause it to occur. It requires a gap, some type of discomfort, or another type of provocation to occur.

Consider your appetite for food. It’s hard to see the appeal of food when you’ve just eaten a large meal. No matter how much you might enjoy food, it can be hard to stomach another bite after you’ve over indulged. The appeal of a really good meal is partially in the hunger for it. The same is true of creativity.

If you don’t see a need to break from routine or change your thinking, the notion of creativity will not only seem unappealing, it will become difficult to realize. Why question the status quo if it’s giving you what you want? Why push boundaries if their confines are comfortable? Even if you don’t know things could be better, it’s easy to convince yourself good enough is... well, good enough.

It’s those who feel an itch to change things in their life, those who are unsatisfied with their work or processes or other aspects of life are more likely to experience a creative breakthrough. The ones who dare to look out and ask: “What if this were different?” are the ones who often make it so.

We call this perspective “openness to new experiences” and it’s one of the primary attributes that determine whether or not someone is creative. Associate director of the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas, Magdalena G. Grohman believes openness to experiences is the single most defining trait that makes creative success possible.

This helps explain why boredom is so valuable to creativity: it instigates exploration, it creates an opening for novelty. It also explains why those who travel or read diverse content and expose themselves to different ways of thinking are the ones who tend to produce more creative ideas and work.

Perhaps one reason some of the most creative artists and musicians in history are also the most troubled: the struggle they encounter in life is what pushes them to try new and different things.

If you want to be more creative, embrace the uncomfortable feeling brought about by peeking outside your routine and asking: “What else is out there?”



What we give up by being creative

There’s a high cost to being a maker or creative.

Of course I’m talking about the cost of diving into the unknown, of taking something comfortable or familiar and throwing it away.

To create is to destroy: the empty canvas, the blank page, the solid stone, or perception or even beliefs. The pursuit of new and different requires us to abandon—at least temporarily—the old and familiar.

What happens when the new isn’t as good or reliable as the old? What do we do when what we create doesn’t feel worthy of the destruction? How do we know when we’ve succeeded or fulfilled our purpose as a creative? How do we know when more (or better) ideas and projects on the horizon, or if we’ve reached our peak?

I don’t know the answers. What I do know is that the adventure into figuring out the answers for yourself is almost always worthwhile.

The reality is that the journey of a creative—of someone who imagines an alternate way forward or who asks what might happen when something gets made—is one fraught with uncertainty, dead ends, and many nights of discouraged restlessness.

When you begin to embrace curiosity and creation, when you open yourself to newness, you will never be the same. It’s like walking through a door you can’t go back through. Once you’re through, you’ll see things or feel things or have things you didn’t before.

But what we trade-off for all this is something we can’t get any other way: a different tomorrow. Something tangible that wasn’t there yesterday. A new book or blog post. A sculpture. A photograph or video, or conference, or document that proves “I was here, I made this.” A different perspective, or a more clarified one. A more vivid idea of what’s possible or why things are the way they are.

Even when the work isn’t up to snuff—when what we make doesn’t match what was in our head, of compared to what someone else made before us—we still learn, we still will have made something that wasn’t there yesterday.

And the result of any creative endeavor is this: a guiding light or inspiration to others, and a reminder for ourselves. A difference big or small in the way you think or feel or see. And that difference is what creativity is all about. Not accepting the status quo for what it is. Not looking around you and believing it doesn’t get better. We must appreciate everything around us that is beautiful and unique and valuable, but we must also remember that what often makes those things so is that they are impermanent.

There’s always the great unknown just around the corner. And when we go out to face it we give up a lot, but gain a lot too.



Why starting helps get us unstuck

The hardest thing about writing a draft is starting.

Looking at a blank page can leave you feeling as though anything is possible, the words can go in any direction. The limits are boundless, so we procrastinate. We tell ourselves we’ll start writing once the right idea strikes, once we have a more vivid direction to go in. We often look to the internet for inspiration or direction but get distracted instead. The work waits for us, but we’re off pretending we’re waiting for the work to tell us what to do.

The blank page sits there because that’s all a blank page can do: wait.

If you’re trying to create—to write or paint or code— for fun or as a new habit or hobby, the pressure is even worse than if you’re doing those things professionally. That blank page isn’t just a blank page to the free-writer, it’s a choice. You could start writing, but there are so many other, more important or pressing things to get to, you’re better off waiting for inspiration to strike. So you’ll focus your attention on more important things like checking email, getting caught-up on your favorite tv shows, fiddling with an old project.

Of course with this mentality the writing or painting or coding rarely comes, and when it does: it’s slow and painful and often feels like a bit of wasted time. We try to convince ourselves we’re wasting effort by saying things like: “This is crap” or “I shouldn’t waste my time since I don’t know really know what it is I’m trying to make.”

Yet once we’ve begun creating, once the opportunity and pressure of the blank page have been corralled, the act becomes a little bit easier. Surprisingly, it’s easier to end a sentence than begin one. It’s easier to add ink to an already wet canvas. It’s easier to cross out a line, move the code around, or tinker with colors, once the work is already in front of us.

The reason for this is simple psychology: our minds need direction—some clear guidance—on what to think about at all. And we each tend to feel like: unless we have some guidance, we’re better off doing something else. The internet is always willing to think for us, so we tend to turn there first for inspiration. If we don’t feel the jab of inspiration, the clear signpost on which way to go, we don’t budge.

Of course once we start moving in a direction, we realize moving isn’t all that hard. The only motivation we often need is the direction we give ourselves.

When we pause for clarity we’re often fooling ourselves. We don’t need inspiration to start tackling a blank page, we simply need to start. With whatever thought comes to mind first. With whatever we’re feeling in the moment.

Capturing whatever you’re thinking or feeling the moment you encounter the blank page is a good way to get a direction clear in your mind. What you’ll find is as you start putting things down, they will surprise you. Things you write or paint or code will be things you weren’t really aware you were thinking or feeling or considering. Putting these feelings and thoughts down gives them clarity. The act turns our thoughts from mushy, cloudy things into tangible words and images you can not only see but now edit too.

Once you’ve begun, the rest of the work becomes a little bit easier. And when you have a few bits on the page, you can hone in on what resonates or calls to you and edit or remove what doesn’t. The spark of inspiration is often best found in the work itself: all you need to do is start. To fake it if you have to, but start.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”



Creative isn’t something you become

It’s a process you learn to develop over time.

This distinction is important, particularly if you’re coming at creativity from a place of having been turned off from it: working or living in a culture or place that promotes routine and answers over the unknown and question seeking.

If you believe creativity is a state of being—that it’s on or off, something people have or don’t, something you must be empowered to flip on—you’re much more likely to accept excuses for why you can or cannot use it.

The common fallacy tends to be: “I can’t be creative because my boss/parent/partner won’t let me.” Of course creativity scoffs in the face of constraints. True creativity says: “they” won’t let us do things one way, so we’ll try another.

So what’s preventing you from being more creative here and now? What if it’s just your perception that creativity is a switch, or something to become or a state to achieve? How might we change the perception of creativity as being something you don’t turn on or off and instead being something you develop as a skill? Something that can work around any constraints? A skill that gets better over time, not worse?

Creativity—the ability to think of ideas which are both novel and valuable—is a skill anyone can learn. Much like math, science, writing, or a foreign language.

I remember thinking I’d never be able to do math, even of the basic variety. I grew up thinking mathematics were something you were either good at or not. I watched in school as students who excelled at math breezed past problems I could hardly understand, let alone solve.

But over time I learned math is a learnable skill: it was just the ways I was being taught that weren’t right for me.

I found “tricks” for solving problems, visual approaches that aligned more with my way of thinking. I learned when terminology and labels mattered and when they were just for show. I learned how to break the problems down into manageable chunks rather than trying to solve large problems at once. And I realized just how important it is to approach a problem with confidence, without which my mind wouldn’t even begin to view a problem as something I could solve.

The same attributes are all true of creativity. Creativity is a skill which can be learned by anyone and developed over time.

To do it requires learning small tricks for utilizing it: flipping a problem around, changing perspective, asking silly questions, finding a partner, or any of the other hundreds of thinking tricks.

Developing creativity also requires a clear perspective of what it is and what it isn’t, how it differs from innovation or imagination.

If you want to develop your creativity you too must improve your confidence of doing so. Without which it won’t matter how capable you are, you’ll find your mind simply don’t even want to try.

Creativity is a skill like any other, in that you can develop and improve it. It’s not a switch to be turned on or a trait you’re either born with or not. When you realize this, many more options for how to utilize your creativity become apparent.



What to do with your imagination

“Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement.” — Sir Ken Robinson.

You have an imagination, it’s whether or not you choose to use it that matters.

If I were to ask you right now to close your eyes and briefly imagine a small, green ball, you could do it. The details of your imagined ball may look different than mine—your ball may have a different texture, exist within a different environment, or be of a relatively different size—but you can imagine it without struggling much to do so.

And if I were to tell you to now imagine that same green ball as changing color to red, or blue, or purple, you could do that too. If I told you to imagine the ball floating in the sky, you might imagine it softly floating a lot like a balloon through clouds or through an orange sunset or foggy rain. Or if I told you to turn the ball into a heavy metal, you'd have no trouble imagining it dropping to the ground with some heft.

You are capable of imagination even without instruction on how to do it. Nobody has to tell you exactly how to imagine something, you simply close your eyes and there you are.

This is the power of imagination: because what you envision and sense and witness exists entirely within your head, you can do a lot with it, without any instruction or tutorial beforehand. Imagination is as natural as breathing for us humans.

Of course the limits of what you can imagine are entirely contained within your memories and experiences. If you didn’t know what a “ball” was you would absolutely have a hard time imagining it, how are you supposed to imagine something you have never seen before? It's akin to me asking you to imagine a drilous harbitoot: you can't do it, because I just made that up.

As Oliver Sacks writes in his book The River of Consciousness:

"Intelligence, imagination, talent, and creativity will get nowhere without a basis of knowledge and skills."

When we talk about creatives using their imagination—to dream-up wild and wonderful new things—what we’re really talking about is the ability to take a number of existing concepts and change known attributes of them in order to imagine things differently. That famous Apple motto of the late 1990s harks true: think differently.

Of course imagining things to be differently isn't a behavior reserved only to highly intelligent and capable geniuses: imagining a different world is a favorite practice in the shower, of children on the playground, of the workplace daydreamer. You’re imaginative every time you imagine anything at all, creative or not.

By improving your imaginative capabilities you improve your ability to think creatively: to dream of new possibilities.

Steve Jobs had to imagine what the first personal computer might look and feel like before it existed. Michelangelo had to imagine each statue he crafted before he began sculpting any clay or hammering any marble. In each case what came as a result was influenced by something that had come before: the large closet-sized computers of the 1980s or the cast statues of ancient times.

To improve your imagination you must first give it fuel—through experiencing new things—then identify patterns or models for modifying what you can imagine. But tread carefully: the knowledge we give ourselves can often blind us to possibilities. We may become so accustomed to how things are, or how we experience things, we fail to see things any other way. As Bruce Nussbaum explains in his book Creative Intelligence:

"We’re often so accustomed to seeing things in a certain way that we become blind to the possibility of something we can’t yet imagine. Often the way to create something wildly different is to step back and look at what stories we’ve taken for absolute truth."

When it comes to imagination, it's not enough to merely gain new knowledge and experience, we must step back and question things often too.

One of the best ways to do that is through cognitive conflict: giving yourself improbable or silly scenarios to imagine. How might a led balloon float? What would a marble statue of a mountain look like? Where is the tallest place on earth and what might happen if the tallest person jumped up on top of it?

It's only by gaining experience and information, then thinking critically—or playfully—about it that we can really begin to empower and do more with our imaginations.