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.

Childhood role models and their influence on creativity

Is one key to being more creative having a strong, creative childhood role model?

I remember growing up with parents who encouraged exploration, creative expression, and—possibly most important—curiosity. They undoubtedly impacted how I perceive creativity. If something breaks your first inclination might be to take it to an expert, or call someone, to fix it. But my father would work diligently to understand why the thing broke and how he might fix it himself; whether a car break pad, an electrical short in a wall, or even a computer. My mother was all about resourcefulness and art, motivating family and her students to constantly create and explore using whatever was available.

For a long time I wanted to believe my upbringing didn’t have a major influence on my perception of creativity, but the more I’ve researched into the impact others have on our own perceived creativity—or our creative confidence—the more I realize just how important childhood role models can be for instilling a sense of curiosity and wonder.

Being creative requires a strong sense of curiosity. It requires an openness to ideas, and the resources, abilities, or resourcefulness to pursue them. Without these things it’s easy to fall into routine and to consistently expect things in the world to be reliable. But if you go out into the world expecting things to be fairly unpredictable—or, at the very least, knowing you don’t know everything and that there’s always the possibility of learning on your own—a lot can happen.

A childhood role model can certainly be helpful in teaching and exemplifying these skills for a child, but it isn't the only way.

As we grow we lose our sense of wonder. I've written on this before by saying: “as the child grows up, he or she comes to be an expert on how to live within the bounds of what becomes known; to do so ensures a general happy and healthy life. You don’t have to look very far to see how this transformation occurs, how we each go from naive toddler to knowledgable youth then finally into experts as adulthood.”

Books, experimentation, educational and environment can all help influence the creative mentality. An adult role model can help too, it’s just not a requirement to developing the necessary habits and behaviors of creative thinking.

Books help expose us to different ways of thinking just as a parent or group of individuals might. The stories contained in books help us feel as though we’ve lived them, the cost of the experience merely being time.

An author could realistically or figuratively go on a journey that provokes irrational thinking, puts them face-to-face with danger, and shakes up their very existence. As a reader we merely need to show up and we’ll come out on the other side unharmed but undoubtedly changed. A role model can present a similar map to us: they tell their story or live it before us and the outcome is the same in that we get the insights of the experience without having to have left the comfort of our lives.

Travel can also be important for diversifying perspective. When we go somewhere new we expose ourselves to potentially new concepts or ideas; the further from home, the more radical our exposure is likely to be.

Diverse hobbies and experiences, interactions with strangers, and even intriguing movies or music, can all influence our ability to think creatively. But in order to even encounter any of those things we must first believe we have a capacity for creativity; we must first be curious enough to try new things, to open ourselves to opportunities. If as a child you are told the world is the way it is and you shouldn’t question or explore, you’re less inclined to do so. But if you’re instead taught from an early age that the world is vast and varied, you begin your life expecting to encounter things that are different and potentially insightful.

Children don’t need to learn these things from their parents, but having close mentors or role models to help demonstrate the value of creativity and curiosity goes a long way.

Of course, it’s true just as much for adults: if we aren’t surrounding ourselves with those who inspire and motivate us, who push us to ask questions and remain curious, we’re less likely to step outside our comfort zones, to take risks, or to simply wonder.

Move fast to avoid getting creatively stuck


Why is it we often get creatively stuck, even when we have access to creative prompts or tools that are explicitly designed to get us back on our feet and thinking again?

Sometimes your imagination can just run head-first into new ideas with the help of a creative prompt or otherwise stimulating jolt (such as coffee or alcohol).

Other times you might find yourself stuck or struggling to get your imagination running. Even when you have access to thinking prompts, tools, friends or co-workers, etc. You remain feeling stuck.

Why is that?

There are a few feasible reasons, one being simply exhaustion. It’s important to re-energize your mind if you’re feeling stuck.

But another, more common, culprit is the inner critic.

The silent voice in your head that starts to criticize every thought or idea you have, saying: “Are we sure? Here’s why that might be a bad idea…”

Before you’ve even had a chance to vet an idea, there’s your inner critic telling you why you of all people can’t do it, or why that idea is certainly doomed, or what the risks (real or not) are of trying something.

To combat the inner critic, we must embrace moving fast, even into seemingly dead-ends or wild ideas.

Move fast with your ideas when it comes to creativity. Don’t give your critic time to evaluate anything, otherwise it will surely stop you (even when there’s no validity to the doubts, fears, or negative impressions). The inner critic runs on a higher, slower level of thinking than your idea-generating mind. Running with an idea, seeing what happens as you start to move, and only stepping back once you’ve made some progress and can therefore take a more objective view of the idea, is a great way to move even when you feel stuck.

The next idea you have, whatever it is, don’t stop to criticize it or yourself. Move on it. Write it out and answer any questions you have about it on paper. Propose it to a friend or group. Don’t think, just move.

Because, in the end, what matters ultimately for creative ideas is that we get them out of our head, that’s the only place we can effectively evaluate whether or not they’re worth developing further.

The largest barrier to creativity is the one we set for ourselves

To be an artist you have to make art, there’s no way around that fact.

Of course similar advice could be said for being a writer, an inventor, a scientist, a dancer, a musician, an educator, an entrepreneur, or anything between. While the basic defining work for any of these roles is fairly straight-forward, we often pile on difficulties in an act of self-sabotage.

Or, more prominently, we tend to shy away from creative work (or thinking) in an effort to avoid failure.

Despite how difficult it may seem, the real struggle with becoming a painter is embracing your need to grow into it; by putting the brush or pen against the canvas repeatedly and then stepping back and being able to say: “This may not be ideal, but it’s a start.”

The act of failure is inherent in any creative work.

Too often we attribute the act of creativity to those who are born with the ability, or those who have a natural inclination for it. In reality: it’s those who are willing to diligently pursue creative work (or thought) who wind-up expressing it most. The reason? They work through the failures, the unsuccessful products they produce, the bad work.

The only absolute defining trait of those who will succeed in any creative endeavor is their ability to persevere.

In Creative Confidence Tom and David Kelley elegantly summarize this point:

“Creative geniuses, from artists like Mozart to scientists like Darwin, are quiet prolific when it comes to failure—they just don’t let that stop them.”

I have a friend who has always wanted to write a book. For years he has told me about his idea for this book he is going to write. And for years the book has stayed little more than an idea or rough pages typed quickly in the night.

When he says he doesn’t know how to be a writer, I point at the writing he has already done and tell him “just do a lot more of that.”

But he hesitates. He doesn’t make writing more a priority, simply because he doesn’t believe he can do it. He’s not a writer. But what makes a someone a writer? They are someone who writes. Sometimes what they write is poor in quality or substance, sometimes it’s full and inspiring. But what they write doesn’t matter so much as the fact they have written (and, arguably, shared) it.

Often the barriers we encounter in our pursuit of a more creative life is the sheer fear of failing.

In actuality, failure is how we become creative in the first place. By working past the failures, seeing through the stumbling, and pressing on to see what we can come up with next.

You could have big ideas too


I could never come up with that idea.

Garbage. Yes, you could have.

You could have come up with any idea, if you had the right frame of mind, the experiences necessary to envision it, and the energy to see it through. It doesn’t necessarily matter where you are or what you do, you could have come up with the idea if you were looking for it to begin with.

You’ve got everything it takes to come up with even the most brilliant ideas – it’s all right between your ears.

Any idea that exists in the world today could have come from your mind. It’s not that you’re not intelligent enough, resourceful enough, or creative enough.

Yes, to a notable degree, you aren’t likely to come up with the next rocket booster if you don’t work in rocket science. But that doesn’t mean your mind isn’t capable of it. It’s simply a matter of environment and interest.

It’s a dangerous thought, to believe you can’t come up with ideas like those we idolize in the media or news. In doing so, you set yourself up to not have the ideas right from the start, not allowing yourself the chance to even try.

To solve creative problems, to have “those” ideas, you have to first believe you can, you have to use what you have now, and you have to have the courage to look at the world inside-out, upside-down, and rightside-left.

Yes, you absolutely could have those bigger ideas, but you have to start thinking differently about the problems they solve to begin with.

No excuses.

Light Bulb designed by Scott Lewis from the Noun Project.