Your creativity is limited to what you know

A problem many people face when it comes to thinking creatively is that the possibilities seem infinite.

There’s so much that might be that it becomes paralyzingly to try and imagine what could be. Anything that can be dreamed can be a solution to a problem. In our imagination, anything goes.

But that’s not how creativity works, that’s how imagination works. And while the two are inexplicably linked, the differences are important to learn.

Creativity deals with what is possible based on real constraints. Imagination is limited to our mental constraints. Imagination can influence creativity, and creativity can exist within imagined scenarios, but the distinction between the two is what enables or hampers our ability to use them.

If you approach anything with the intent of being creative, but fail to research and acknowledge the constraints you’re dealing with, you’re going to run into disappointment. Expecting to be creative without limits isn’t being creative, it’s being imaginative.

Instead, moving into a problem or space with the full knowledge that creativity will be grounded in what you know and have available to you is going to power you through it. But how exactly do you do that? One tried-and-true approach I’ve found is to make a list. A written list outlining everything you know about the problem or project, along with everything you have available to you in order to get through it, allows you to create a resource you can refer to throughout the work of ideation. And the list doesn’t have to be anything formal or even structured. A quick list of top-of-mind constraints and considerations can do more for your creativity than a well thought-out and formal list of pros, cons, and possibilities.

The painter always sits down with the tools he has available to him, in front of a canvas with a set size, knowing what his abilities will enable him to create. A chef comes to the table prepared with ingredients and supplies at the ready. It doesn’t matter what the specifics of the constraints are in either case. What matters is that the creative knows there are limits and has familiarized themselves with them.

Creativity is not so much knowledge as it is improvisation

Knowledge is what we’ve experienced, it allows us to survive and grow and see beyond what’s real and possible into what’s not through imagination.

When it comes to creativity, it’s easy to lean on your default mode of thinking, on knowledge.

But relying on knowledge to think creatively is like trying to run through a field backwards. You might get to where you’re going, but you also might not.

No, to think creatively we cannot rely solely on linear knowledge, we have to instead focus on improvisation.

Improv, if you weren’t aware, means to be unprepared. Improvisation is about generating ideas by “making-do.” It means adapting, or building from unusual components.

We see this all the time: toddlers don’t have much knowledge but they can improvise solutions to problems them encounter. Crows are another great example of improvisation’s ability to empower us despite limited knowledge. Stage actors use improvisation to keep their comedy going, no matter what situation or circumstance arises.

In our own work we must rely on using improvisation over knowledge if we’re to do be creative.

That means using what we have to do what we can right now.

If you don’t know where to start, start anywhere. If you feel stuck, ask someone to help you out. If you’re tired, take a short break. If you don’t how how to do it, try doing what you can. If it’s important enough, you’ll make time for it.

Creativity takes no excuses and improvisation reminds us that it’s up to us to adapt and build and do what we can with what we have. Anything else simply isn’t creativity.

If you want help improvising, I wrote an activity book that can help you do just that, it’s called: The Creativity Challenge.

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.