Overcoming the factors that often keep us from being creative

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Ultimately we are the thing which keeps us from being creative. We, ourselves, are only to blame.

Though excuses are plentiful, creativity by nature asks us to push past or through any excuse we may come up with. We overcome these excuses by maneuvering around constraints, ignoring status quo, or destroying expectations and even core beliefs.

This all makes sense, as the source of creativity in any event is always our own mind. That’s where we process everything in and around us, the world outside our minds exists, but it’s only by being processed within our brains that we come to understand and comprehend it (or don’t). Everything occurs within the mind, as David Eagleman so elegantly writes in his book Incognito:

”Your brain is encased in absolute blackness in the vault of your skull. It doesn't see anything. All it knows are these little signals, and nothing else. And yet you perceive the world in all shades of brightness and colors. Your brain is in the dark but your mind constructs light.

Because everything we think and believe and process takes place within our minds, the barriers or factors which inhibit our creativity are all within our minds too.

Our existing knowledge and experience, our ability to question and seek answers or pursue opportunity, our energy and taste for risk, our relationship to fear and doubt, all play a part in our ability to think creatively and have worthwhile ideas. Each exists in the form of bodily networks or systems, behaviors, habits, and beliefs.

When we feel stuck or hindered what we’re really feeling is uncertainty, fear, doubt, confusion, or simply an encounter with something we do not know how to move around (it’s worth noting that just because we can’t see a way around an obstacle does not mean there isn’t a way around it).

Undoubtedly there are factors outside ourselves that play a part in our ability to think creatively too, through their influence and affect on us. As an example: if you grew up in an environment which discouraged risk taking, question asking, or being open to change and differences, you’re much less likely to seek those things out as you age and mature. It just won’t be part of your “nature.”

Or if you spend all of your time and energy on familiar routines or efforts which benefit from the feelings of comfort and safety but detract from the hints which might otherwise motivate or inspire you, you’re unlikely to begin any pursuit of meaningful ideas. You’ll be fixated on what you know and what feels comfortable, less inclined to pursue even slightly risky endeavors; this despite the fact that a slight change to behavior or routine might yield hugely impactful insights to your perception of the world or the work you do.

As you can see, there are certainly factors outside ourselves which inhibit or otherwise influence our creativity. If we do not surround ourselves with inspiration or motivation—examples of the creative process in action—we may never feel comfortable or knowledgeable enough to do those things too. If you never see someone think creatively, it’s hard to know how to do it yourself. If you never learn about something that’s possible, you may not think of it at all (let alone whether it’s impossible or not).

Still, in the end, it all—the inspiration and inhibition—take place within our minds. We are the central conductor with which the mind plays. And when it comes to creativity we are setting our own limits; no one else and nothing else can prevent us from “thinking differently” (with perhaps the exception of mental disability or disease).

All we need in order to embark on a creative pursuit is exactly that: think differently. Think in different terms, think of different tools, different modes of functioning, of seeing the world. And there are thousands of ways we can do this in any situation. (If you’re really stuck, I wrote a book filled with 150 challenges for thinking differently.)


So, if this is all true, why do we not act creatively in everything we do? Why do we struggle to generate truly creative ideas when we need or want them most? Why aren’t we all creative, all the time?

The reality is that creativity isn’t always necessary, the process of thinking creatively will not always yield something worthwhile in a moment, and it’s often much easier to stick with what we know and how we’ve always thought than it is to try something differently.

Creativity requires energy and even then does not ensure an energetic return on investment. It took Edison and his team more than 1,000 iterations to find the perfect filament for the lightbulb. Henry Ford famously failed numerous times in his attempt to manufacture a car. Apple ended up building and selling a beautifully contained computer that consistently cracked and ultimately failed.

Then there’s the greatest factor which keeps us from pursuing creativity: fear. Fear of rejection, of embarrassment, or failure. Fear can prevent us from having being creatively driven, from even trying to think differently or to take a risk or to be open to experiences. Nobody wants to fail or to make mistakes, because those things hurt and can damage (temporarily or permanently) or reputation or ego. And because fear is such an ingrained part of human nature it’s often the most common blocker for exploring a new idea or pursuing a unique opportunity.

When I first started writing about creativity here on Creative Something (more than 11 years ago now!) I would often be asked to help someone whose boss or manager or peer wasn’t “allowing” them to be creative. I’d be told: “I want to do something creative but this other person isn’t letting me, they shut down every idea I have and I’m afraid if I try anything I’ll lose my job.” Or someone would email me saying: “I want to be creative at school but I don’t have anyway to express myself how I want to!”

My response to those types of messages comes down to what I started this post by stating: the only thing stopping you from being creative is you.

Someone told you that you couldn’t do a certain thing? So what, use that creative brain of yours and come up with an alternate plan. Unsure of how to move an idea forward? Try something, anything, and if that doesn’t work try something completely different. Not sure how to do something? Talk to others, read a unique book, break routine and go somewhere new to be inspired.

Nobody is stopping you from being creative but yourself.

Why starting helps get us unstuck

The hardest thing about writing a draft is starting.

Looking at a blank page can leave you feeling as though anything is possible, the words can go in any direction. The limits are boundless, so we procrastinate. We tell ourselves we’ll start writing once the right idea strikes, once we have a more vivid direction to go in. We often look to the internet for inspiration or direction but get distracted instead. The work waits for us, but we’re off pretending we’re waiting for the work to tell us what to do.

The blank page sits there because that’s all a blank page can do: wait.

If you’re trying to create—to write or paint or code— for fun or as a new habit or hobby, the pressure is even worse than if you’re doing those things professionally. That blank page isn’t just a blank page to the free-writer, it’s a choice. You could start writing, but there are so many other, more important or pressing things to get to, you’re better off waiting for inspiration to strike. So you’ll focus your attention on more important things like checking email, getting caught-up on your favorite tv shows, fiddling with an old project.

Of course with this mentality the writing or painting or coding rarely comes, and when it does: it’s slow and painful and often feels like a bit of wasted time. We try to convince ourselves we’re wasting effort by saying things like: “This is crap” or “I shouldn’t waste my time since I don’t know really know what it is I’m trying to make.”

Yet once we’ve begun creating, once the opportunity and pressure of the blank page have been corralled, the act becomes a little bit easier. Surprisingly, it’s easier to end a sentence than begin one. It’s easier to add ink to an already wet canvas. It’s easier to cross out a line, move the code around, or tinker with colors, once the work is already in front of us.

The reason for this is simple psychology: our minds need direction—some clear guidance—on what to think about at all. And we each tend to feel like: unless we have some guidance, we’re better off doing something else. The internet is always willing to think for us, so we tend to turn there first for inspiration. If we don’t feel the jab of inspiration, the clear signpost on which way to go, we don’t budge.

Of course once we start moving in a direction, we realize moving isn’t all that hard. The only motivation we often need is the direction we give ourselves.

When we pause for clarity we’re often fooling ourselves. We don’t need inspiration to start tackling a blank page, we simply need to start. With whatever thought comes to mind first. With whatever we’re feeling in the moment.

Capturing whatever you’re thinking or feeling the moment you encounter the blank page is a good way to get a direction clear in your mind. What you’ll find is as you start putting things down, they will surprise you. Things you write or paint or code will be things you weren’t really aware you were thinking or feeling or considering. Putting these feelings and thoughts down gives them clarity. The act turns our thoughts from mushy, cloudy things into tangible words and images you can not only see but now edit too.

Once you’ve begun, the rest of the work becomes a little bit easier. And when you have a few bits on the page, you can hone in on what resonates or calls to you and edit or remove what doesn’t. The spark of inspiration is often best found in the work itself: all you need to do is start. To fake it if you have to, but start.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

How to put your ideas into action

How does anyone turn any idea into reality?

Despite what it may appear to many: anyone who creates anything is figuring it out as they go—with few exceptions. Steve Jobs had absolutely no idea how to build a company, let alone a personal computer, but he—with help from others—figured it out. Warren Buffet knew little-to-nothing about investments or investment firms before he started working as one and eventually founded one of the most successful investment brands in the world.

Actor, writer, and comedian John Cleese put it best in his book So, Anyway by saying: “Nobody has any idea at first.”

To put it another way: a serial entrepreneur may have experience starting and running companies, that doesn’t mean they’ll know everything about their next company. If they did know it all and have all the answers, there’d be no point to starting yet another company. The same goes for a writer who is working on their next book, or the successful architect building their new project, or the app developer pushing code out for a new game.

In each of these things what matters is two-fold: 1. Do what you can now, and 2. Identify what you don’t yet know so you can go out and learn it.

If you want to invent a new type of machine—for example—but you know nothing about manufacturing or materials and imports or patent laws, you can at very least write a detailed description of what it is you want to build. You can go further and doodle what the machine might look like or how it might work.

From there you can start piecing the gaps in your knowledge together through research: if you wrote that your machine will mold some type of metal you should start researching metals commonly used in molding processes. You could find experts in machine production or patents and email them or message them on social media to get their help. You could go to the local university and see if they have groups or support to point you in a direction.

You have the entire world of knowledge at your finger tips, you could certainly figure out anything you might not yet know with a quick search on Google.

I’m getting away from myself here though. The answer to your question—of how to make something real with your idea—is to first do whatever you can right now, then identify what you can’t yet do and find a way to learn it or someone who might be able help you.

I’ve used this process to teach myself to code, design, make fine metal jewelry, paint, write, and more. I’ve written about this a lot as a result, here are some of what I’ve written which may help you:

The surprising truth about making ideas happen

John Cleese: Nobody Has Any Idea at First

How to take any idea and run with it

This post first appeared on Quora.

What to do when there’s no time for creativity

Every morning it seems as though a hundred things are clawing for my attention. Maybe you can relate to the feeling.

When I first wake up there are emails which have piled up during the night, dozens of notifications on social media, and the increasingly heavy pressure to start the day and get to work.

By the time I’ve made it into the office the list of things that need my attention feels entirely endless. There never really feels like I have time to be creative. I rarely feel like I can push all the distractions off long enough to really think.

My team needs me to solve a problem that bubbled up yesterday, my boss needs help with something urgent, and if I don’t get the work done today I know it will be there tomorrow in addition to even more stuff. My relationships need attention too. An old friend is in town and wants to plan dinner, my family keeps calling, I need to schedule a vet visit for my dog.

When it comes down to it: the reality is there will always be something to get in the way of creativity.

It should come as no real surprise: creative thinking is often viewed as secondary because it’s akin to play, experimentation, and change. Who has time for play and experimentation when there’s very real work sitting in front of them? Why try changing anything if things are working reasonably enough?

This is one myth around creative thinking we must break: if you don’t make time for creativity, it won’t happen.

Those who regularly practice creativity do so intentionally. They make creativity part of their routine, they regularly find excuses to experiment and play, and they schedule time for reflection and creative self-fulfillment.

If there’s no time for creativity, it’s because you haven’t made time for it. No excuse.

If you want to make more time for creativity, I recommend trying three things:

1. Make creativity an intentional act first thing in the morning.

Wake up 30 minutes to an hour or more earlier than usual. Set aside that time for writing, painting, meditation, a mindful walk around the neighborhood, anything that encourages creative thought.

By getting it out of the way, first thing in the day, you limit the potential for distractions. Starting your day with a creative intent also helps set your mentality for the rest of the day.

2. Embed creativity into anything you can get away with.

If you’re having trouble finding the time to be creative, try incorporating a little creativity into everything you’re already doing.

How might you make your work a bit different? What would happen if you took a different route to wherever it is you need to go? Who could you pull into brainstorming that you normally wouldn’t? Where could you try adjusting your environment or tools, just to see what happens?

3. Schedule time for yourself.

If you regularly find it difficult to find time for creativity, set aside small chunks of time throughout the day as dedicated creative thinking blocks.

You can use the time to challenge yourself, to produce creative work, or as a means of simply thinking and allowing yourself space to ruminate on ideas.

If you want more advice on how to be creative with little time or low energy, consider these tips from Michael Nobbs, who lives every day with Myalgic Encephalopathy/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

A creative life means opening a lot of small doors

“Art is the big door, but real life is a lot of small doors that you must pass through to create something new.” — Jean Giraud

To be creative is to be open to the idea your ideas—your way of understanding the world—are limited by what you have experienced.

A simple way of looking at it is: if you don’t open the door, ideas can’t get in. I got a good reminder of the importance of being open recently, of how being close minded or restricted by your beliefs can hinder creative thinking.

I was in Indianapolis talking to students about how to life a more creative life. I’ve been writing about creativity for 10 years, a reasonable amount of time to get my ducks in a row on the matter.

And yet, during the visit I ran into a few people—specifically: adults—who found themselves struggling with the notion of being open as a means of gathering more points from which to form ideas. They wanted to be more creative, they wanted to inspire others to be more creative too, so they asked me how to do it.

My response? I told them what I’ve learned, about helping students be open to new and different things, to change routine for the sake of changing it, taking the time to think about experiences. I mentioned failure and the importance of having small failures and how to overcome setbacks in order to uncover novel and useful ideas.

When I explained all this, a few of the people I talked to looked at me kind of skeptical, like none of the things I was talking about would make any difference.

I can’t blame them for their skepticism, it’s hard to hear anything that might stand in the way of your beliefs, or how you’ve always thought of things.

But I couldn’t help but think: maybe that’s your problem right there. You aren’t willing to consider different perspectives so you end up thinking how you always have. You exist inside a tiny bubble you’ve created for yourself with your own thinking. So when anything sharp comes along—a different opinion, someone who says you should try the thing you failed once at—you run the other way.

It’s no wonder so many people struggle to uncover a really insightful idea, or fail to learn means for overcoming life’s setbacks or difficulties. So stuck in their own way, they can’t see that the easiest way out of a bind, or routine, or block, is by opening up to new and different perspectives.

The quickest route to thinking creatively isn’t protecting your ideas or way of thinking. It’s accepting the fact your ideas, your perspectives on the world, are just one small blip in the much larger scheme of things.

If you want a way out of the monotony of your standard method of thinking: try picking up a book you’d never consider reading, and read it. Talk to people on the other side of the world (it’s easier than ever to do thanks to the Internet), or if you can afford it: go to the other side of the world and talk face-to-face with them. Try the frightening, hole-in-the-wall restaurant down the street. Do anything to broaden your perspectives.