To think creatively you merely need to look closer at things

Creativity really stems from being able to understand the characteristics or behaviors of any thing, its circumstance, or the relationship between it and other things.

When you begin to explore and understand those things, you can change them, or imagine what the world would be like if any of those details were to change. And when you change one or more of those characteristics, you end up with something uniquely creative.

This is really all creativity is: the changing of one or more attributes of any thing. The removal of an element, the addition of something else, the relocation of the thing to a different circumstance or environment.

When changes occur simply for the sake of change what you’ll often—though not always—end up with is art.

Picasso experimented with changing the colors and placement of facial features in his paintings. What would the world look like from behind a more abstract lens? How would faces be interpreted and understood if they were represented as flat, static artworks rather than dimensional images?


In 1917 the French-American artist Marcel Duchamp wondered what would happen if he placed a urinal in a museum. How would the environment influence the porcelain fountain, and similarly how would the urinal change the environment?


In either case the result was artwork: change for entertainment or wonder. Neither exploration yielded much in the way of pushing humanity or invention forward, but each helped provoke the imagination of an audience.

Creativity differs from art in that the change must produce something both unique and useful. Utility is a primary factor of creativity, either for a large group or civilization itself, or even the individual.

Perhaps this is another reason why art and creativity are so commonly conflated: the process of creating one or the other is often the same, but the results vary.

When you change your routine just to see how it will influence your day, and you learn there’s a faster route you could be taking to work or school, that’s creativity.

When the team at Apple were experimenting with the iPhone and they decided to remove as many physical buttons as possible, that was creativity.

In your own life and work: by looking at the characteristics, traits, behaviors, and contexts of the things around you, then wondering what might happen if any of those things were to change, you begin to reveal creative thought.

What would happen if an element was removed?

What would happen if you replaced one element of the thing with that of another?

How does the context or environment influence or impact the thing?

Who would benefit from the changes? Who would suffer? What cost would any change occur? What’s the simplest thing to change now? What might be easier to change in the future? What’s the relationship between this thing and another, and what would strengthen or weaken that relationship?

It’s by exploring the attributes of any particular thing, then imagining how changing them might influence the larger whole, that we being to develop and uncover novel ideas. It’s identifying the ideas that are both novel and useful that we stumble into creativity.

The creative process is very much about understanding and exploring.

How creatives break away from old ideas

How do we, as creative individuals, break away from old ideas? Ideas that otherwise hold us in their grips because they’re all we’ve known, or because we’re afraid of what might happen if we let go.

Brian Tracy gives us a few answers. He says that the most impactful creatives admit when they’re wrong, face up to their mistakes, are flexible with new information, and are willing to cut their losses.

“Here are two ways you can break out of narrow thinking patterns and become more creative. First, be willing to admit that you are not perfect, you make mistakes, you are wrong on a regular basis. This is a mark of intelligence and courage. Second, with new information, be willing to change your mind.”

When we shy away from mistakes or being wrong, we train ourselves to always hold tightly to what we know—even when the information may be flawed or inaccurate. This is true for creativity as it is for everything else in our lives.

The way out is to admit you’re not perfect, then embrace what happens when new information presents itself.

We are the bakers, not the makers, of ideas

The way you make a cake is by collecting a bunch of ingredients, mixing them together in the right order, then putting it all into an oven to bake.

The process of creativity is a lot like baking a cake, in that it entails the gathering of ingredients—or knowledge—then mixing it up and allowing it to “bake” in your subconscious.

But how often do we think of creativity as something we do as opposed to a process we merely facilitate? The nuances of consciousness and anything beneath it aside, creativity is very much something which takes place outside of our full control. If we could generate novel and useful ideas at any moment, on a whim, there’d be nothing about creativity worth researching or writing about.

Of course creativity doesn’t work on-demand. It isn’t something we can readily rely on, let alone elicit as needed. Instead, it’s a process which we contribute to—or don't—and with which we experience the results as though they had come from a part of ourselves we have little to no awareness of.

We don’t “make” or “generate” ideas any more than we cook a cake. The oven is the thing doing all the work, we’re merely the ones who put the ingredients into it. Our subconscious is an oven, it’s our job to put the right stuff into it and then give it time to bake.

If you want to be exposed to new ideas, there are certainly things you can do to provoke them out of our brain. But the process is no different than baking: you have to first have all the ingredients, then mix them together, followed by giving them time to “bake.” You can adjust the temperature and try replacing ingredients, but the result always requires the time and diligence to bake.

We don’t pull ideas out of nowhere. To “have” an idea is to hold it, not to pull it from the void. In a way, we only ever discover ideas, not create them. We’re the bakers of ideas.

To come up with a lot of ideas, go narrow to broad

A great way to come up with ideas on-the-fly is going narrow in order to go broad. Focusing briefly before going wide, then focusing back in again and repeating as necessary.

The technique works like this: simplify by focusing-in on or asking questions about what you already know, then use those questions to go broad and really explore the extremes, finally going back to simplify in order to generate a long list of ideas.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of this technique, we can try using it with a common creativity test: the single object test.

In this classic test of creative ability, you’re given an everyday object and asked to come up with as many uses for it as you can in short amount of time, anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. For the sake of this exercise, let’s say the object we’re brainstorming about is a good, old fashioned brick.

What most people do immediately when confronted with this test is trying to come up with any top-of-mind ideas for how the brick might be used. The most obvious uses would be: starting to build a house, as a way to prop something up or open, or as a way to break a window. You can probably come up with a number of other ideas quickly too. The problem with this approach is it’s limited to stand-out ideas and less creative ones. Of course a brick can be used for building a house, that’s what they’re commonly used for.

What we want to try and do is come up with a lot more—and more varied—ideas by going narrow, broad, then narrow again.

Assuming we all have some shared idea of what a brick is, the first step of the technique is to focus-in. What do we know about bricks? What are they good for, where have we seen them used? What are the traits we know of? Where have we’ve seen bricks used before?

Well, we know bricks are heavy, they’re typically used for construction or for decoration on the outsides of buildings, they can come in many colors but are typically a shade of red, and so on.

Keeping these things in mind, we can start to go broad, expanding our thinking on each subject or feature we’ve identified in the previous step.

Construction makes me think a brick could be used as a crude shovel, or hammer. We could use the brick as a leveling tool to see if things are straight, or as a prop for holding tools or supplies. The brick could be used as a marker, to point out where an underground pipe or camoflouged hole is.

For decoration I’m thinking the two holes typically found in a brick could be used as vase for holding plants. The brick could be used as a bookend, a doorstop, or the foundation for a table. It could be used as a paperweight, a way to keep dirty shoes off the clean floor, or—for those daring enough—a way to store wine bottles (the cork-end of the bottle could fit into the brick holes).

If at any point you become stuck, unable to think of more ideas, simply go broad again. What else do we know about bricks? How are they made, who works with them most, and why were they invented in the first place? Which other features of the brick stand out?

Once you begin answering these questions you’ll have fuel to narrow-in on each of them in order to generate even more ideas.

And that’s the technique of going narrow in order to go broad for generating a lot of ideas.

Three simple steps for building a daily creative habit

What’s the single best habit you can build in order to be more creative?

A lot of possible answers almost immediately come to mind; daily meditation, journaling or writing every day, creating something (no matter how small) every day, trying new things, trying to see things from a different perspective, or simply taking more chances.

Each of these habits have deep roots in creativity. Writer Julia Cameron believes in the power of morning pages, a daily practice of writing three pages, by hand, every morning. Meditation has repeatedly been shown to increase creative capacity in participants who practice regularly.

But if you had to pick just one habit to build in order to increase your creativity, what should it be?

Developing a habit of constant curiosity.

Einstein noted: “I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious.” Steve Jobs once exclaimed that “Creativity is the whole thing.” If I had to attribute my creative success to one particular thing, it would be my insatiable curiosity for the world around me.

But how do you build a habit of curiosity? The way I’ve always gone about it can be described in three steps:

1) Find time to be mindfully present. Set a repeating timer on your phone, write a sticky note and put it somewhere you’ll have no choice but to see it throughout the day (a mirror is a good place), tell all your friends to remind you, whatever it takes to constantly remind yourself to be in the moment. Not the mindful zen type of being in the moment, just recognizing that whatever moment your in at the moment is happening right then and there. The moment doesn’t have to be anything special or anything in particular. In-fact: the more mundane the moment can be, the better.

2) Take it all in. Once you’re being present in the moment, take a minute to acknowledge all of your sense. What do you hear? What do you smell, anything familiar or anything new? What are you feeling, what do the clothes on your body feel like or the temperature of the environment around you? Can you taste anything? What do you see?

3) Ask questions about the details. Once you’ve acknowledged your senses, start asking questions about it all. What do you see that maybe you didn’t notice before? How did it get there, whatever it is? What would it taste like to lick the floor? Who would do such a thing? What about the sounds? What are you hearing that you maybe didn’t notice before? What is making that sound? What sounds do you find yourself missing?

Here’s the thing: this entire practice, from step one to step two, doesn’t have to take more than one minute out of your day. But if you take the time to practice curiosity often, what you begin to find is that these types of questions become engrained in your thinking.

Suddenly you’ll start asking these types of questions about everything you encounter. You’ll find yourself asking questions nobody else is asking, or questions you didn’t realize you could ask. And when you start becoming this curious, new ideas will suddenly spring up in the most peculiar places.