What we get from the things that don't belong

Our first reaction to an encounter something that seemingly doesn’t belong is to ridicule it.

If it, whatever it is, doesn’t belong it could be dangerous to our familiar way of doing things, putting our hard-earned beliefs and processes at risk. Nobody wants to be told that idea they’ve had their entire life, it turns out, wasn’t right. Or that the way they’ve always done something is the actually the most inefficient way of doing it.

It’s only natural that we reject the new and different in favor of the old and familiar, particularly if what’s new is naturally out of place.

But what we miss by rejecting those things that occasional misplaced is an opportunity to improve; ourselves, our work, or our environment.

That wacky coworker or classmate might make you roll your eyes, but they also have the ability to make you see things in a different way. Adding an item that doesn’t belong into your environment might at first be a distraction, but it also might make you start doing things in an unfamiliar, empowering way.

Sometimes you can’t beat a good old pen and paper for taking notes while everyone else is writing on their laptop (research shows this old-fashioned way of doing things actually helps retain more knowledge).

Using a satirical, oversized marker and a huge pad of paper might make you feel silly in a meeting, but it also might cause you to focus on the big-picture rather than the unnecessary details.

And if you fill a building with a bit of nature you might start to reevaluate how you think about the environments you spend so much time in every day.

Photos by photographer  Gohar Dashti .

Photos by photographer Gohar Dashti.

The odd thing in a familiar place can often cause us to see things in a different way. And just because not everyone sees the value in the strange doesn’t mean it’s any less valuable. Not everyone needs to accept the thing that doesn’t belong initially, that’s why we label it as something that "doesn’t belong.”

Of course we know this because the likes of Einstein, Picasso, Beethoven, Curie all had their ideas and work rejected by the populace out of the gate.

We don’t get to discover the creative—the new and valuable—unless we’re willing to look at something that doesn’t belong and ask ourselves: what does this cause me to see or think in a new way?

Does your office kill or encourage creativity?

Do offices kill creativity? It depends.

Ok, but do certain types of offices stifle or encourage creative thinking? Are open office floor plans more creatively stimulating than cubicle farms? Do workspaces that have fun things like ping-pong tables or free snacks help encourage workers to be more creative? What about working from a beach resort or high in the mountains, do those types of nomad workers tend to be more creative?

The answer, again, for each of these is: it depends. Let’s look to the science.

We know from decades of anecdotal and lab research that to think creatively requires just a few key things:

  1. Exposure and openness to new experiences or stimulation
  2. Opportunities to play or experiment
  3. Space to ruminate and let ideas incubate
  4. The ability to take action and evolve ideas
  5. Some type of validation to continue and promote creative thinking

If we look at any study around the creative process these things each pop-up in some form or another. And if we take each of these things and try to apply them to office workspaces we’ll see some interesting things.

You may be familiar with some of these concepts as they relate to the offices of companies like Pixar, Apple, and Nike. These are often big, open, and almost playful offices which tout themselves as being creatively emplowering for employees.

I don’t work in a typical office space myself. I actually work in the world’s largest open-office at Facebook in Menlo Park, California.

On the face of things, it’s easy to see how Facebook’s office might meet the requirements of promoted creative thinking. We have massive, open areas where we work because the theory is that being able to see what other people are working on, or bumping into a peer randomly on your way to the bathroom, are good ways to promote exposure to experiences and inspiration.

We promote play and experimentation through ping-pong tables, an on-site arcade, colorful posters dotting every wall, and by hosting occasional “hackathons” where anyone can work on anything for two or three days out of the quarter.

Facebook also has spaces specifically designed for rumination: tucked away, private “libraries” are sound-proofed and offer employees a place to work quietly without distraction. If you ever visit the office you’ll also see incredible walking paths around our campus as well as on the massive rooftop park.

I could go on and on about how these things relate, but the important thing to note is that, while these things do help facilitate creative thinking, it’s hard to say whether or not they actively promote it. I’d even argue that they don’t.

Let’s look at a different real-world example: I have a friend who works in a sea of cubicles. His work space is just one in a row of many, each blocked off by a four-foot high gray wall. It sounds drab to me, and he’d probably agree.

He doesn’t have private libraries, a rooftop park, fully-stocked kitchens, or a full cafe to get free lunch from. He doesn’t even have a ping-pong table. But he does have a small, shared kitchen where he can microwave and eat his home-prepared lunch with his peers.

This friend of mine undoubtedly has space to ruminate as a result, and he may have some exposure to experiences in his weekly team meetings or during lunch hour, but what about the other stuff that creativity thrives on? What about being able to take action on ideas, or getting validation for a good idea, or being willing to play and experiment?

These are all really valid questions (which is why I’m writing them) but let me set the record straight: what matters most in an office setting when it comes to creativity is the close community. No amount of colorful paint, kicked-down walls, or free food, will make employees more or less creative.

Put smart enough and motivated enough people into an office of any size, shape, or style, and you’ll notice something interesting happen: those who are creatively driven turn the space into what they need it to be.

This is because creativity doesn’t happen in the office. It doesn’t even really happen in the world, creativity happens in the mind. And what each of these common office designs try to do are shape the way employees think or feel.

And sometimes this works! Having free food available to employees can definitely help them think more about the problems they’re solving in their work and less about what they need to eat for lunch. But free food isn’t going to encourage anyone to work hard.

Having a rooftop park gives employees a great space to walk and think beneath an open sky, but that park isn’t going to do anyone any good if employees aren’t using it.

Placing a pingpong or foosball table in your office is a reasonable signal that having fun and playing during work hours are acceptable to your business. But playing a table game isn’t the same thing as experimenting with a project that could cost the business money.

So yes, offices can affect the face value of creativity. But no, real creativity happens in the minds of workers. And to get workers to think creatively requires more than physical or aesthetic structures. To get employees to think creatively requires training and a culture of working that actively promotes exploring, experimentation, rumination, taking action, and validation that even if you fail it’s ok to pursue wacky ideas.

The most creative teams I know have worked in many different types of offices. What makes them creative isn’t the office spaces, it’s the culture around the work and what the team deems as acceptable versus not.

You can put a bunch of toys on employees desks and paint the walls bright colors in an attempt to loosen up the creative bolts, but unless employees can see and act on the real facilitators of creative thinking, it’s all just for show.

How to build a life of inspiration in four easy steps

“We are influenced by drives to which we have little access, and which we never would have believed had not the statistics laid them bare.” – David Eagleman.

No matter where you look, you’ll discover that a crucial part of living a creative life involves being inspired in some form or another. Either being inspired to act or being inspired by something. Despite its prevalence in the creative culture, inspiration is a peculiar subject to try and understand.

Of course inspiration is a very real phenomenon. It’s likened in some psychological studies and historical literature as another type of emotion, akin to ecstasy or sadness. Ample anecdotal evidence indicates that inspiration can provide a positive state of mind and propel or encourage more creative behaviors and experimentation in those who are struck by it. For some individuals a lack of inspiration can lead to lethargy, even depression.

To really understand where inspiration comes from and how it impacts us, we must look at it through the lens of where it unequivocally resides (no matter its source or how it makes us feel): all inspiration lives within the mind. We can study inspiration in the contexts of psychology to grasp at it.

To this day, unfortunately, the mind continues to be a very mysterious device. As David Eagleman states in his 2011 book Incognito: inspiration is often the result of drives to which we have little awareness. Or, to put it another way, as designer and author Eric Karjaluoto once wrote: “The problem with inspiration is that it’s random, which leads you to focus your hope on outside influences you can’t rely on.”

Eagleman and Karjaluoto make a fair point: as much as we want to feel inspired, the sudden flash of insight or energy we get from inspiration often eludes us. We’re left feeling unmotivated and without insight more often than we’d like in both our lives and work.

There is hope for understanding some level of what inspiration is and how it works in the mind, however. We have a solid amount of research at our fingertips for better understanding how to live more inspired lives. One study of recent note was conducted by Tobin Hart in 1998. Aptly titled: “Inspiration: Exploring the Experience and its Meaning,” Hart worked with 70 participants to understand the experience of inspiration. What they found can be summarized simply enough:

“Inspiration can not be willed into being, but it can be cultivated through the influence of set and setting.”

In his study, as well as research into the historical literature on inspiration, Hart uncovered four parts to a pattern of inspiration that allow us to cultivate the right settings for it to strike. Whenever an experience of inspiration occurred, Hart learned, the process was almost always the same: a pattern of inspiration. Hart gives us the four parts to the pattern of inspiration as follows:

1. Find connection

Before any inspiration can occur, we must feel some sense of connection to the work and world immediately around us.

The mind performs this type of emotional connection almost constantly, naturally for us. To again quote David Eagleman, from his book Incognito: “Brains reach out into the world and actively extract the type of information they need. The brain does not need to see everything at once…it only needs to know where to go to find the information.” Studies have gone on to shown that the mind, when left with a gap of information, will magically fill it with whatever available information it has. We see serendipitous patterns and connections everywhere because that’s how our brains tend to work.

However, there are things that get in the way of feeling connected, as you may know all too well. Stress, fear, and exhaustion limit our ability to create a feeling of connection. Rather than feeling like the world is setting us up for insight, we feel like it’s bearing down on us in an attempt to crush our spirits.

To have a feeling of connection requires a sense of openness, relaxation, calmness, a sense of wonder. Having a child-like curiosity in play, the longing to explore the world through imagination, or the peace that can come from a long walk, are all prime examples of setting the stage for connection and, ultimately, inspiration.

2. Become open

Hart identified that once an individual feels connected to the work and world around them, they become open to new possibilities.

Psychologist Art Markman defines openness to experiences as: “The degree to which a person is willing to consider new ideas and opportunities.”

Once we begin to feel a connection we open ourselves up mentally, physically, and emotionally; creating a natural drive to engage ideas as they appear. And the world is so vastly complex that ideas are nearly always around us, if we merely open ourselves to them. We know this because all great discoveries were not new discoveries, they were merely new ways of seeing what already existed.

Here, too, we run into obstacles on our path to experiencing inspiration. Ego, a lack of awareness, or (most notably) fear, keep us closed off and un-open to new ideas or possibilities. To overcome those obstacles we must embrace naivety, the possibility of being wrong, and our perceived limits. IDEO founders David and Tom Kelley give us this bit of advice, from their book Creative Confidence:

“Start with a growth mindset, the deep-seated belief that your true potential is still unknown. That you are not limited to only what you have been able to do before.”

3. Embrace clarity

If we’re connected to the world around us, and if we’re open to the ideas it presents, we will experience what Hart describes as a “distinct phenomena.” Clarity. The “flash” part of inspiration that feels like a sudden light switch being flipped or a shock of lightning to the brain.

Clarity occurs when we are both connected and open. To get to this point in the pattern of inspiration, we must first have perceived connection to the world around us and openness to what it might present. In other words: we can only experience clarity when we’re we’re paying attention.

And this, Hart explains, is the real crux of what it means to experience inspiration. The phenomena of clarity is a sudden insight or revelation brought about by our ability to connect with and remain open to the world, patiently waiting for it to uncover itself to us. Designer and writer Christopher Simmons elegantly explains this lesson by saying:

“If you look at the world both critically and with wonder, there are lessons to be learned everywhere. Every object, experience, relationship, environment, phrase—everything—has locked inside it an insight it wants to share.”

All it takes is connection, openness, and time. But the pattern of inspiration is not done just yet.

4. Utilize your energy

Once clarity occurs, the inspiration carries with it a type of motivation or, as Hart explains, energy: “A dramatic shift in emotional as well as physical energy.”

The lull before the flash of insight can be viewed as a battery cell that is energizing before the spark, ready to fuel what may come next.

It’s the energy that we get from being connected, open, and aware of the moment of clarity, that enables us to live the experience of inspiration fully. Without the energy, Hart describes, it is not inspiration but some other understanding that we have experienced.

Here, however, we begin to set ourselves up for disaster. Fueled now by the energy of insight, we must carry it through self-doubt, critique, and further fear in order to see what our clarity can become. Sometimes that means remarkable inventions or discoveries, other times the energy merely turns into a scribble idea on a crumpled up paper or a less-than-ideal day dream.

But we cannot let the times when inspiration fails us prevent us from continuing to feel connected and open to the world, attentive to the clarity we may experience. To do so is to snuff out the flame that fuels inspiration to begin with.

Pushing yourself to be more creative every day

I will refer to the definition of creativity as written by the once brilliant designer slash writer George Lois, as quoted in the first page of my book The Creativity Challenge:

“[Creativity is] the defeat of habit by originality.”

There are, undoubtedly, a few large obstacles in life that dilute our ability to feel creative and from which our most concrete habits are formed.

This includes the conditioning of what was once creative and new to us into the norm. Like moving to a new city, starting a new relationship, or the feeling of your tongue in your mouth: each risks becoming stale or routine, even expected, over time.

Lois nailed this one on the head: it’s easy to slip into a pattern of routine, even when it comes to creative endeavors. What once made us feel excited or challenged can easily become mundane and routine if we don’t pay attention.

Responsibilities take hold. This is particularly true for the creative who has taken his or her craft and turned it into a business or moderately-important side project. It’s one thing to explore ideas, to take photographs or write books for the sheer enjoyment of those things, or in an effort to fulfill one’s curiosities, it’s an entirely different thing to do those same acts in an effort to pay the bills or maintain one’s standard of living.

If you’ve fallen in to a creative rut or simply want to push yourself out of habit, the first place to start looking is at what habits are and how we can influence them.

For this task, I point to habit expert and writer Buster Benson who once summarized the process of changing habits by stating:

“Behavior change is identity/belief change.”

Or, as Aristotle put it: “we are what we repeatedly do.” So how do we become more creative every day? How do we change our identify or beliefs about ourselves in order to be even a little more creative?

Here Buster points us to human behavior researcher Dr. BJ Fogg, who says creating new habits in life is about either having an epiphany, taking small steps, or changing our environment.

We can’t do much about encountering epiphanies, and small steps can certainly do us good but it all feels like more work than many of us have time or energy to deal with.

The last point though, changing our environments to impact our sense of identity, is something I use often in my own life. It’s undoubtedly the easiest thing you can do to push yourself to become more creative every day.

For example: when I recently relocated to the San Francisco Bay area late last year, I realized my work area in the new apartment was meticulously clean and laid out. I didn’t have any outlets (apart from my laptop) for me to explore ideas or express myself. This clean workspace made me feel professional and in control, but I noticed that it was hindering my ability to really think creatively as a result.

I ordered a few Moleskine brand notebooks, some big markers and pens, a ruler, a sketchpad, some sticky notes, watercolor paper, and a few must-have reference books, and threw them all across my desk.

The desk is now messier than I typically like my living space to be, but I’ve found that having immediate access to these resources has greatly influenced my creativity.

Now if I find myself procrastinating on a task (like writing this article) I’ll take a minute or two to doodle a portrait on a sheet of paper (despite the fact I don’t consider myself to be an artist). Or I’ll repeatedly write a quick blurb of inspiration to myself in cursive writing, trying to capture the essence of the quote while also fine-tuning my illustration lettering skills (I am not a typographer or illustrator either). In some cases I’ll simply pick up one of the nearby books (It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be is my go-to desk book), flip to a random page, and find myself drawn to a concept I read.

These small acts might not seem like much, but they’ve done some pretty impactful things for my own creativity. Everything from sparking ideas for blog posts to inspiring me to squirt BBQ sauce all over a canvas just to emphasize a message.

My point is this: if you want to push yourself to be more creative every day – to escape routine or to get the feeling activity back into your head ” make it easier on yourself. Carry a notebook with you wherever you go (they sell pocket sized notebooks and equally small space pens on Amazon), put a big sketchpad and a magnum-sized marker near your desk, or set your morning alarm for just 10 minutes earlier so you can get up and journal whatever thoughts sporadically pop into your mind first thing in the morning.

Here are a few more ideas for what you could try to encounter more creativity in your day.

These things sound trivial, I know, but the impact they have on your behavior can be tremendous.

You don’t have to necessarily push yourself into being more creative every day, you simply need to allow yourself to fall into being it.

How are you hacking your space to encourage creative play?

One of the easiest ways I’ve found to stimulate creativity on a regular basis is to surround myself with opportunities to play or tinker.

We are animals of efficiency, opting to take the easiest, safer road over the more novel and undoubtedly more challenging one.

So I use small “hacks” in my home and work environments to stimulate creative play. A pen and an always-open notebook sit on my work desk at home. I’ll often have paintbrushes, bright colored paints, jumbo-sized markers, and sheets of paper sitting out on my apartment floor, waiting to be used to create a mess.

Scattered through-out my apartment are ample things I can pick-up and use briefly to explore an idea or quickly change my mode of thinking. A guitar on the couch, an Oculus VR headset near the desk, corks and paperclips in the kitchen, countless pens scattered throughout the apartment, and my iPad and a wireless keyboard on the coffee table, all remind me that I have what I need to explore ideas, to get them out of my head, any time.

Anything you can do to make creative play – the act of exploring ideas in one way or another – more effortless is going to help you not only explore ideas, but overcome fears and doubts around idea exploration in the first place. Essentially: you build creative confidence by encouraging yourself to take small chances on sporadic ideas.

If you don’t have enough fun or inspiring things around you to play with, start small. Carry a pocket notebook and a space pen with you. Both can be bought from Amazon for less than $30 and last for well over a month of daily use.

Surround yourself with things you can explore, play with, and exercise your creativity on. Even the smallest of toys or tools can act as a primer for when you need creativity most.