Failing to see things differently

When you’re looking upside down it’s easy to see things in a refreshing way. You almost don’t have to try, things just appear in ways you hadn’t thought of seeing them before.

Suddenly parts of the ceiling architecture appear that you hadn’t realized exited because you’re now seeing them from a the perspective of being below you. People can “walk” on the ceiling and your vantage is one of being above everything.

If you sit with your head upside down, as children typically do for fun, the odds of having something new or different make itself known increase automatically. Of course those things have always existed, and you may have noticed them before, but a change in physical perspective causes the mind to look at the peculiar details.

You don’t know what you don’t know. Until you start looking at the world from a different perspective, with a different frame of mind, it’s difficult to even open the door to new ideas. So many people find themselves creatively stuck—or in a mundane routine—simply because they fail to look at anything differently than they’ve always seen it.

The ceiling is always above you, always designed with a sense of simplicity because it’s primary purposes is to provide shelter and support structure. Until you look at it upside down.

Ignorance seems to reign in our modern age. We’re more connected than ever, more empowered to create and learn, and yet we find ourselves surrounded by people who cannot—or who choose not to—think outside of their own, limited perspective. The result of such ignorance is an uninspired, static culture.

You can’t have new ideas if you’re only ever making the same mental connections you’ve always made. You don’t get to a place of intense imagination if you’re only seeking out information which conforms to what you already know. The trap is, of course, that we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know when we’re really stuck because everything outside of our perspective is just that: invisible to us.

It’s not enough to pick a book up at random. It isn’t sufficient to travel somewhere new and not really reflect on what’s different or, more importantly, why it’s different.

To really gain the insight required for creativity we should seek what we don’t know. Read a book you’d never read otherwise. Talk to people you disagree with. Take some time to sit upside down once in a while. Anything to uncover what you don’t know you might not know. Really, thinking outside the box is just another way of saying: getting outside of your own head.

There’s no way around it: mastering creativity takes time

In his book “Mastery” George Leonard explains the psychology behind what it takes to mater any endeavor: persistent and deliberate practice.

Leonard uncovers how mastery is something anyone can achieve in any area of focus, creative or otherwise. Whether you’re someone who dabbles with painting, or someone who wants to try her hand at producing a blockbuster movie, to do it, Leonard explains, what you need more than talent and intelligence is time and grit.

That shouldn’t deter you.

Our entire lives are filled with examples of our ability to master what we set our mind to–learning to walk or speak, for example.

In the book, Leonard describes how mastery is a lot like touching your hand to your head.

When you were a baby you would struggle to touch your head on command. It took many months of learning to get the act right; to not only understand what your hand is and your head is and how the muscles between the two connect and move by thought, but also to understand the language behind the prompt and what each sound meant and the definition of the words themselves. There was a lot baby-you didn’t know how to do when it comes to touching your hand to your head, but today it is something you know and understand and—assuming you are of good health—can do without challenge.

This approach to mastery is just as true for creativity as it is for understanding language and learning the motor controls of your body.

Being able to identify what makes some ideas good and some ideas bad requires years of experience, otherwise you won’t know what indicators to look for. It also requires that you’re able to effectively utilize the creative thinking system within the brain.

You can read all of the research you want on how to go about this but ultimately what works for you is something only you can learn. What you read in books and online should only stand as referencing points for where you can explore on your own.

It’s not enough to read about how to be creative, creativity is an active process, it requires thinking and experimentation. You can’t read your way through invention.

And that, Leonard explains, is what makes any attempt at mastery so difficult.

But if you persist, if you are diligent with your practice and try to learn a little and experiment every day, you will undoubtedly succeed because you’ll be learning how the complex system of creative thinking works.

I’m reminded of a favorite quote of mine, this time from Craig Lambert in his book, Mind Over Water, where Lambert writes:

“Success is no big thing: it is every little thing, achieved on a daily basis.”

And one other relevant quote from blogger Jason Kottke:

“Shit just takes time, and creative people make time.”

Why good ideas sometimes fail

Poor ideas are often poor because the circumstances around them haven’t been fully explored.

As a result: we believe the idea itself is bad despite the fact the surrounding circumstances or environment are the factors that are actually bad.

We see examples of this often in history: the invention of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone only came to fruition after many other inventors tried doing something similar. One of the crucial elements their telephone systems lacked which Bell did not was the state of electromagnetic transmitters and receivers.

For example, 42 years before Bell was able to create an electronic, working telephone, Antonio Meucci had already created a working system of communicating between a stage and control room of a theatre using a pipe-telephone system.

In 1854, 22 years before Bell patented his telephone design, inventor Charles Bourseul had already imagined the ideal communication system. Bourseul wrote: “Suppose that a man speaks near a movable disc sufficiently flexible to lose none of the vibrations of the voice; that this disc alternately makes and breaks the currents from a battery: you may have at a distance another disc which will simultaneously execute the same vibrations…. It is certain that, in a more or less distant future, speech will be transmitted by electricity.”

Bourseul’s words describe almost perfectly what Bell later ended-up creating.

It’s worth noting that at nearly the exact same time (some argue even before) as Bell’s invention of the telephone, Elisha Gray created the same system but lost the patent to Bell and his team later on.

The telephone, as Meucci, Bourseul, Gray, Bell, and countless others before them envisioned, was absolutely a good idea. But it wasn’t until Gray and Bell had access to the modern technologies that would make the telephone so elegant to design, as well as ideally functional, that the idea came to fruition.

When considering our own ideas, we must consider the circumstances that allow it or hinder it to become a successful reality. When possible: changing the concept to meet what is possible today can turn the idea into more of a worthwhile endeavor.

A simpler example of this point is the concept of a time machine: Building a time machine is a poor idea because it’s not realistically feasible to do today. We simply don’t understand enough about time or space to create any type of machine that would allow us to travel through it.

It’s a fun idea, but certainly not a feasible one, therefore it would be ridiculous to dedicate oneself to working on a time machine today. Or would it?

By looking at the answers as to why an idea isn’t feasible, we can improve the idea itself as well as predict how it might change in the future.

Similar to how Bourseul predicted that the telephone which Bell would create years later would function through electromagnetic pulses.

To put this concept into practice we simply need to look at our own ideas, particularly ones we may have tried working on but failed.

When we look at those ideas and ask “why” they failed, we begin to shine light onto the circumstances that made it so. We may, in our exploration of reasons, realize the idea was actually good and worthwhile, simply unfeasible at the time.

Sometimes the process of asking and answering “why” means the idea evolves into something unexpected. As artists, inventors, and creators, we need to be open to following that rabbit hole wherever it may lead.

To look at our ideas and ask “why might this fail today?” we can either predict how they might succeed in the future, but we can also begin to see where we can make changes to the idea in order for it to succeed today.

When you’re faced with an idea that seems less-than-great, try asking yourself why it feels that way (then keep asking “why”). You’ll wind-up in a place where the idea makes more sense and is feasible.

Read this next: Creativity as intelligence and day dreaming

Dream photo by Moyan Brenn. Lego time machine photo by Alex Eylar.

Facing the fear that you may not be that creative and all your ideas are bad

Nearly every idea I have feels bland or stale.

Some of my ideas have been bad. But have all of them, all of my ideas and all of my projects, been so… uncreative? Some of my writing has certainly felt repetitive or seemingly outdated. Some of my artwork has felt boring and unoriginal. Most of my ideas strike me as “not all that great” on their face.

And, sometimes, when I write an idea down, or start writing an article, or open Photoshop to design, I stop myself before I even get started on the idea. Why? Because I feel that the idea is just not creative enough. What’s the point?

This, this moment of pause and stepping back in the creative process, is what’s become known as the Lizard Brain. Maybe you’re familiar with the term, maybe you’re not.

The gist of these moments is this: there’s a part of our brain that has been around since the time we resembled lizards. It’s the part of our brain that makes us want to run away any time we’re faced with something new, or different, or challenging.

When we have an idea or start a project but take just a second longer to think about what it is we’re actually doing, we realize that we could fail, or that the idea pales in comparison to others that exist. We doubt our capabilities or what our individual purpose is as an artist, or photographer, or writer, or dancer, or musician, or student.

We experience this a lot as creatives, no matter where we are at in our career. Even professionals sit down in front of the computer, or canvas, or stage, and think to themselves: “This is garbage, I can’t do this.” I know I feel that way a lot.

It’s important to recognize these moments, because what we do next is what sets us apart as true artists, writers, and makers.

The amateur – the “wanna-be” – stops whenever they feel the feeling that they’re not that creative. They give up. They put the notebook, or canvas, or computer away and turn on the TV instead. It’s easy to lay in front of the couch and watch something somebody else has created. It’s much, much more difficult to say “fuck it” and try the idea anyway.

But doing that – feeling the fear and doing the work regardless – is what makes our efforts worthwhile.

Even if the idea isn’t all that creative after-all, even if nobody notices at first, even if you fail… after long enough of pursuing the work (and feeling the fear of failing or being an impostor but doing the work anyway), people start to notice; we start to notice ourselves.

And after enough of that type of work a funny thing happens: we become exactly what we wanted to be. We become the writer, or the designer, or the business person, or the creative guy or gal. Because what do those people do but write, or design, or run the business, or have ideas?

Being creative isn’t about having the best, world-changing ideas, or making the type of work that gets rave reviews from millions of people. Being creative is about having the ideas and starting the work, feeling afraid that you might fail or that you have no idea what you’re doing, and doing it anyway.

When I feel myself start to shutter and shake at the thought of writing another article, starting another project, or touting myself as someone who thinks creatively, I have to remind myself to do it anyway. Because that’s just what we do.

Where I don’t know leads


“I don’t know.”

Those are three very powerful words. They help us to explore new territory, push past boundaries, and face our fears.

Admitting that you “don’t know” allows you to be more creative than those who do. The naivety of not knowing makes it easier to overcome difficult problems, because you don’t know whether or not the ideal outcome is possible yet. You’ll explore and tinker until the pieces fall into place or don’t, whereas experts won’t even attempt to explore because they already know what’s possible and what’s not. To quote author Steven Farmer: “With no expectations anything can become.” Not knowing is a creative asset, it should be pursued and harnessed.

Of course, not knowing can be a hinderance to productivity as well.

Not knowing means you know that you’re going to make mistakes. It means that you’re walking into a moment that is both cold and dark, where you’re not sure whether you can come out on the other end or not. Not knowing can be paralyzingly frightening.

It’s those who are able to push pass the fear of the unknown that reap the rewards.

Sure, you might fail, you might reach a dead-end, you may even temporarily embarrass yourself. But if the alternative is to discover completely new solutions, to learn more and expand your potential, to do what nobody else is doing, it seems that not knowing what you’re doing (and doing it anyway) is worthwhile anyway.

You’re facing your fears when you admit “I don’t know,” you’re also embarking on a quest to do something very much worthwhile.

Photo by Andreas Overland.