motivation

What do you bring to the party of your life?

If you’re invited to a dinner party the safest thing you can do is to bring a salad. A run-of-the-mill, standard, non-flashy salad.

Most people aren’t shocked or surprised when they’re presented with a traditional salad. It may not be their first choice when it comes time to start serving food, but a salad is about as conservative as you can get when it comes to dinner parties. Or maybe some type of bread, or a glass of wine. There aren’t many allergies or food constraints you have to account for when it comes to constructing a salad (assuming you’re omitting nuts). A salad is a good “filler” food, it goes well as an appetizer or a side.

Of course the value of a good salad is equal to its offering: average compared to other food items which may or may not offer more in the way of flavor or pizzazz.

If you want to play it a bit more dangerously, you could bring something much more unique and fancy to the party. Maybe a ramen dish with slow grilled steak and a Thai-themed sauce, or a big bowl of spicy kimchi slaw.

The problem with a fancy food dish is that not everyone can or will want to partake.

There may be vegetarians in the crowd who morally object what you’ve brought, or someone who just doesn’t like spicy foods. Maybe the uncertainty of exactly what a “Thai-inspired” sauce entails is enough to turn people off from even trying it. You might not want people to reject your offering, especially if your goal is to make a good impression. And yet, a salad doesn’t make much of any impression, let alone a good one.

A traditional salad is just safe, little more.

Why? Because a standard salad doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It doesn’t create a memorable experience or deliver a punch of any type. It’s not the type of thing someone will want to discuss with their significant other on the drive home from the party.

If you want to fulfill the bare minimum requirements of bringing something to a dinner party, a salad is the way to go. But if you want to do something a bit more memorable, with a bit more flavor and a bit more of an impact on those who partake, a basic salad won’t cut it.

You’re better off experimenting.

The cost of bringing something other than salad to the table is, of course, you’re going to upset somebody. The trade-off for working on something not only valuable but also unique is that what you make won’t be for everybody.

If you want to be comfortable and blend-in, going with the safe bet is a great way to do just that. But if you want to stand out and do something a little more unique, you have to embrace the fact that you’re going to be uncomfortable doing so. Because the cost of valuable and unique is turning off somebody, somewhere, who doesn’t want to be uncomfortable themselves, or who don’t believe their comfort should be the cost of your grand idea.

Ultimately it’s up for you to decide. Is the party you’re going to every day at work or school or in your relationships the type where it’s best to prepare a salad? Or is it the type of party where you’ll want to make a splash, even if it means some people will be turned off because of it?



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.)

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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.