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.

Creativity is making the small change

It's easy to think of creativity as being about big ideas. We live in a world where big ideas are prized and celebrated and smaller ideas get pushed away. We celebrate those who have big ideas and we cherish the larger-than-life works they produce.

But at the heart of all big ideas are small changes: the minor influences that shape a concept, or spark an insight.

They're easy to overlook and their impact can be hard to understand, so we tend to brush them aside. Even in our own lives: small creative changes can feel unworthy of celebrating. We make a small change but because it's size is relatively small we fail to see it as being impactful.

One reason I love writing is because the influence a small change can have is immediately evident.

Changing the inflection of one word in a sentence dramatically effects what it the sentence is trying to convey. This is known as contrastive stress and by the nature of how we read it forces the reader to consider the contrast of what's being emphasized:

He said she was the last one to leave the room.

Is this "he" to be trusted? Who else may have an opinion on the matter?

He said she was the last one to leave the room.

Is the statement itself to be trusted? If he said she was last to leave the room, what other evidence is there that this is the case? What is not being said?

He said she was the last one to leave the room.

Emphasizing the second character makes the phrase almost accusatory. Who is this "she"? What other information can we learn from her?

In the world of visuals small changes can have a dramatic effect as well. No where is this clearer than the human face, where we convey seemingly simple emotions through thousands of small signals around our eyes, mouth, nose, ears, angle of our head, and so on.

If we take a simple and meaningless-out-of-context cartoon comic panel, this one from the comic strip Garfield, we can see how something as simple as drawing on eyebrows can change what the panel is trying to communicate.


Add in some angled eyebrows, a single line with a pointed center, and the mood of the panel shifts entirely:


Or inverse the angle and the mood of the panel flips too:


In each of these examples the only thing we're doing is making one very small change: emphasis of a single word, or the angle of a single line, yet with each change comes a dramatic effect.

The same point is true of the ideas we have: small, almost effortless changes can have incredible impact. From how we think about a problem to how we view someone, subtleties play a big part in the larger picture.

Perhaps part of the reason we tend to celebrate the bigger changes—the invention of the airplane or the shift from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles—over the smaller ones—deciding to wear a different type of shirt out or adding a line to the face of a cartoon character—is because the smaller changes are easier to do.

It doesn't take much to incorporate a small change in anything.

Yet we also tend to ignore making these small changes for the same reasons: if they're easy to do, they must not be worthwhile.

Of course we can see that this isn't the case. Small changes have really profound impact, particularly when you scale them: what would happen in the Garfield comic above if we drew a second angled line on Garfield the cat? What would happen if we emphasized two separate words in a sentence?

If you want to be creative you don't need to focus on big changes or global-sized problems; you merely need to look at what small changes you can make now, then make them. Not because they're easy, but because until you make the change you won't really know the affect it can have.

Creativity is making small changes. Easy to forget, but also easy to try.

Your own personal creativity

Creativity is the process of generating ideas that are both unique and valuable.

But who does an idea need to be valuable for exactly? Is it enough for an idea to be original to a small group or even just an individual? Must an idea be wholly original to the world at-large? Is there a scale where creativity tapers off: where ideas which are valuable to an individual are still creative, but not as creative as those which influence a grander audience?

In his timeless book Where Ideas Come From Steven Johnson explains the seven or so requirements for spurring creative thought: everything from serendipity and slow hunches, to large networks and competition.

One of the crucial drivers of creativity, Johnson explains, is the concept of an adjacent possible: an idea cannot readily come into existence—let alone consciousness of any individual—until certain circumstances make it available. There are very real steps toward any one creation or idea, invention and creative output are only possible within the bounds of the adjacent possible, the realm of possibilities in any given moment.

The adjacent possible means everything we take for granted today came into existence when it did partially because the technologies and resources available then made it so.

But resources and technology are not equally shared throughout the world or even within small groups. This is nowhere more apparent than the bustling city streets of American cities.

I'm living in the San Francisco area and here we have a large homeless population placed right next to those who live with excess. If an homeless person were to come up with a way to stay warm, get food, and work their way out of homelessness: is that creative? On the other end of the spectrum: if someone invents a new way for your car to drive itself to the gas station, is that creative?

In either case the ideas are both valuable and novel, but getting yourself food, shelter, and a job is on an entirely different level than inventing a new technology for car systems. The person who has those things may not think much of the idea, whereas the homeless person may not find any value in the autonomous driving technology.

We can begin to see here a scale of creativity.

There is undoubtedly creative things you are doing every day which are creative: the subtle way you optimize your day, the way you resolve problems at home or work, the things you create. Though each solution, creation, or resolution you come up with for your life may not be as unique or valuable for the larger population, each is still, unequivocally, creative.

We've become so accustomed to hearing of grand inventions or world-changing ideas, it's easy to conflate those things with what it means to be creative. The reality is even brining value to yourself with new ideas and experiences is absolutely creative. And yes, the larger ideas and inventions which influence and shape more lives are also creative, but that should not diminish the value of personal creativity.

It's important to learn how to master our own personal creativity. Learning how we generate creative ideas that are impactful in our own lives and seeing how those same processes might scale to larger, more impactful creativity.

Read this next: Big ideas never start out big

Creativity means change, and that’s the reason it matters

Whenever I think of change I feel a little bit afraid and a little bit excited.

Change often brings with it uncertainty, risk, chance, and hope. Change means different, and no matter how you cut it: different is often scary. It’s not what our lives and minds are really cut out to handle very well. We instead each tend to cherish routine, the expected, systems we can understand, what’s already known.

Change means things might possibly be better. Faster, cheaper, and stronger are all symptoms of change. The problem is, of course, that maybe things will be worse through change too. Maybe the change won’t be worth the risk, or time, or energy.

As a result, any time we encounter change we find ourselves responding either as one type of person or the other. The risk taker worries, but knows that whatever is on the other side of change is typically worth the risk, worth the sacrifice. They know that change always brings with it some certainty after-all. Certainty that whatever happens, you can learn something new. Change exposes you to things you haven’t been exposed to before. New ideas, new ways of doing things. Even if the outcome of change is negative, that’s knowledge earned; you’ll know what doesn’t work, or what happens when things go a certain way.

It’s easy to look at change as a pressure, or as something that takes away rather than adds. But the reality is that whatever change takes away ends up adding to our experience elsewhere.

We can stay safe in routine, always holding onto some semblance of what we know to expect. But sticking to what we know, to routine, doesn’t allow us to benefit at all, or to grow. Routine and expectations are restrictive. They hold us to expectations no matter how magical or wonderful or empowering the world outside what we know may be.

Yes, change can be a scary and intimidating, but if we remember that breaking away from it is how we grow, we ultimately end up being more powerful and better off than before.

And that is why change is something we should not fear, but readily embrace.

When we talk about creativity we typically talk about it in terms of having ideas that are unique and valuable. But when we step back what do those things really mean? Change. When we talk about creativity what we’re really talking about is change, something that is always additive in some way or another. That’s why creativity matters: it’s adding to the world, even when it feels like it’s really taking away.

The creator or the critic

The best way to change anything is to do something about it. The advice is mostly obvious, yet how often do we find ourselves complaining or wishing for things without taking action?

We want to make more money but find ourselves paralyzed at the thought of doing more work. We want to be more creative but regularly stick with routine or fail to surround ourselves with anything inspiring. We want to turn our hobbies into more fulfilling careers but never dedicate enough time to turning them into our livelihood.

There’s a great way of thinking about this stuff I’ve tried to keep in mind through my own life: if something is important enough, you’ll make time for it.

Generating new ideas, working on side projects, becoming a better creator, writing, meditator, or artist, all require time investments. If you can’t find a book out there you think is worth reading, you should write one that is. If you’re not finding the type of inspiring work in the world you feel you need most, create it. If you’re not happy with your work, start taking steps toward doing different work.

These things aren’t going to happen through wishful thinking or complaining on the Internet. And there isn’t a shortcut to these things happening either, no matter how many self-help books are out there with titles like: “The Secret to Being More Creative Overnight.” If we want these things to occur in our lives, the only shortcut is knowing there is no shortcut.

Dedicating just a few brief moments of our time to the things we want changed can make a tremendous difference. Just five minutes can go a long way.

Five minutes is enough time to strengthen or break apart our assumptions about the work itself. It’s enough time to plan the next series of five minutes in the future. It’s enough time to reach out for help, to gather the necessary tools, or create a formula for how to get from the world of today to the one you’re imagining. Small steps toward big impact. That’s how things happen in the real world.

But nothing happens if you don’t first start. Nothing happens if all you do is send a tweet or rant to a friend.

Of course the critic needs no more time than a minute to construct their argument. The creator often needs all the time in the world just to get an idea put onto the page. One exists in the past while the other presses toward the future, shaping it to fit her vision.

Here’s the thing: if you’re not one, you’re the other. There is no in-between.

You either spend your time wishing you had more time to change things, or you spend it doing whatever you can to make change.