Use this combinatorial question equation if you want to be more curious

Learning to be curious is the most impactful thing you can do to live a more creative life.

I have no doubt about this notion, because time and time again my exploration into the history of creative research indicates that, when it comes to creativity, curiosity is everything.

Really it isn’t hard to see why this is the case. If you can learn to be more curious, the possibilities for inspiration are infinite. The world is too large, too full of magical details, to be uninspired. If you’re stuck, just look around you. There are endless details to consider, an unfathomable amount of stories and perspectives, and more information and things you don’t know you don’t know than you will ever know.

So how do we learn to be more curious and enable ourselves to identify and pull out insights from the infinite possibilities around us?

This is a particularly daunting question for those of us who have found a comfortable and reliable routine in our lives, where poking holes in the world around us feels like more effort than its worth.

In his 1994 paper titled “The Psychology of Curiosity” psychology professor George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon explains that curiosity is not simply a state of being, it’s an emotional state caused when “attention becomes focused on a gap in one’s knowledge.”

In How to Stimulate Curiosity, author Annie Murphy Paul gives us three ways to promote curiosity in our every day lives:

  1. Ask more (and better) questions.

  2. Fill your brain with some level of “existing” knowledge about many different subjects.

  3. Communicate with others about your curiosities (and knowledge)

For the purpose of this article, I want to focus on the first point of Paul’s article: focus on asking more, and better, questions.

Chasing answers feels good. When we stumble on an answer to a question, we feel accomplished and better-off. Yet answers stifle our ability to see possibilities, even if our first answer is wrong. Paul explains:

“Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham notes that teachers — along with parents, managers, and leaders of all kinds — are often so eager to get to the answer that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question…Yet it’s the question that stimulates curiosity.”

To be curious, we must focus on asking more questions.

How do we ask better questions?

The easiest way to ask questions, I’ve learned in my own life, is to remember the “5 Ws” which are: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. Any of these, combined with the five senses (sound, sight, touch, smell, and taste), and you create an endless equation for questions to ask about anything in the world around you.

It’s a little difficult to explain this process, so you’ll have to use a hang in here with me as I try to give you an example of how this combinatorial question equation works. I promise you this is worthwhile to understand.

If you’re sitting at a desk, for example, you can use the modifiers (Five Ws and five senses) together to ask questions about the very desk in front of you:

What + Sound = What types of sounds can this desk make? If I hit it vs. tap it, or if I drop something onto it, or what sound would the desk make if it were dropped from a building? What is it about the materials in the desk, or the way it was crafted, that influences the possible sounds it can make? How do these sounds remind me of my work? What do they have in common and where are they different?

You don’t need to worry about actually coming up with answers, what matters more than anything is being able to ask many questions. The more questions you ask, the more you’re likely to uncover about what it is you’re actually exploring, which (for the sake of creativity) can be more insightful than answers.

We can further add to our question equation by simply adding one additional modifier, in this case adding “who” to our question about the desk and sounds:

What + Sound + Who = What types of sounds did the person constructing the desk possibly hear? What sounds did a delivery person, or the person assembling the desk hear? Who would be able to recognize the make and model of the desk if you were to tap loudly on it? Would you be able to recognize the sound if someone tapped on the same type of desk near you in a year?

The combination of possible questions, paired with the remarkable number of things around us, means our curiosity can truly be limitless. This possibility for endless inspiration through curiosity is true of the work we do as well, not just the world at-large.

If you’re a writer, for example, you can use this question equation to draw out details that can help craft what it is you’re trying to write, or to help spark ideas for insights as you go.

Rather than writing about what something sounds like, you can instead write about what the sound feels like reverberating off the inner ear, or what types of tastes the sound would be if it were a taste, or who is more likely to recognize the sound, or what colors the sound would be if funneled through a spectrum, or how fast or slow the sound is traveling.

When you look at the world through this lens of combinatorial questions, you’re undoubtedly going to encounter things that draw your attention more than you realized was possible. As Annie Murphy Paul wrote in her Time.com article: “It’s the question that stimulates curiosity.”

Ask more questions and you’ll encounter a world of inspiration you might have otherwise been overlooking. Make it a game and use the combinatorial question equation of Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How paired with the five senses of sound, sight, touch, smell, and taste, to see just how many unique things you can uncover about the world around you (or your work).

You might be surprised at how magical everything around you is once you start asking more (and better) questions about it.

Read this next: At the heart of creativity: curiosity and uncertainty



Fear isn’t all bad when it comes to creativity

When it comes to creativity, undoubtedly the most discussed antagonist is fear.

Fear is often hailed as the “number one enemy of creativity” because of its limiting powers. Fear can stop the writer in her tracks, or the painter from ever picking up a brush, or anyone from pursuing any idea, big or small.

I’ve written about this myself, of course, about the fear of being uncreative and my fear of finishing anything.

But for all the negatively around the role fear plays in the creative process, fear deserves some credit for where it actually helps us to be more creative: in taking time to process things more thoroughly.

It’s through fear that we don’t make blatantly poor decisions (like jumping off a cliff without a rope or parachute), but it’s also fear that enables us to live in the second stage of the creative process, what psychologist Graham Wallas referred to as Incubation.

It’s in the incubation phase of creativity that we allow our subconscious (or, occasionally, consciences) to process ideas into more beneficial forms. It’s a type of positive procrastination, if you will.

Yes, there is immense benefit to sitting down to do creative work, or to explore ideas, before our inner critic has time to prevent us from doing so. But there is also something to be said for the creative work that actually does best when we give it time to breathe, to evolve in our minds.

By the time you sit down to start the work, it’s not a beginning as so many of us fear: it’s more like a middle, because your brain has already started the work for you.

What matters is that we know when to embrace our fear, to hold off on the work or on exploring the idea further, and when to ignore that same fear.

It’s not an easy thing to address, and for each of us it will vary. The only way to know when the right time for starting, and overcoming the fear, for you personally is to test your limits. Start now, start later, but always keep in mind how that fear is shaping your ability to think and do creative work as you go.

Graham Wallas gave a suggestion for the best way to help this fear remain a positive influence on our creative selves: by working on multiple things at time.

“We can often get more result in the same way by beginning several problems in succession, and voluntarily leaving them unfinished while we turn to others, than by finishing our work on each problem at one sitting.”

Fear gets a bad reputation in the creative world, but does it deserve it? I think not. As Elizabeth Gilbert so elegantly put in her recent book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear:

“Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome… I made a decision a long time ago that if I want creativity in my life then I will have to make space for fear, too.”


Big ideas never start out big

I believe big ideas never start out as big ideas.

Big ideas almost always start out as small answers to the question of “what if?” What if this isn’t what it seems to be? What if we took a gamble? What if we tried it a different way? What if we follow this mistake all the way through?

In every big idea there is a small start.

Even if you look at big ideas that seemingly began with the effort to revolutionize an industry, or the world itself, you can trace it back to one smaller instance of a smaller idea.

The iPhone began as a response to the question of “what if the iPod could make calls too?” Penicillin started as an accident followed by the small idea of “what if we studied this more?” The personal computer, espresso, cubism, Harry Potter, all began not as big ideas that would impact history. They each started as small ideas which grew naturally.

So why do we find ourselves constantly in pursuit of the next “big idea?”

I’ve learned this lesson in a round-about way in my own life, as most of my biggest successes started out as small hunches. The reason big ideas typically start small is because we can only ever see what’s relevant here and now, and big ideas are shapes in the future. It’s often fruitless to aim for the future when you can only influence the present.

Forget about having big ideas. Focus on the small ideas, the things that make you wonder. It’s from those small ideas that big ideas evolve. Not always, but more often than not.



Creativity is the same no matter the topic

No matter what type of work you’re trying to do (create a painting or write a symphony, solve a problem at work or come up with a memorable date idea), the process of doing it creatively is always the same.

This may come as a surprise to some, either to the artistic type who believes the work she creates is the only true form of creative expression, or to the creative analyst who uses creativity to identify trends in business performance.

The creative process affected by what it is you’re attempting to do, only that you’re following the right steps to produce novel and useful ideas, and surrounding yourself a with the right influences to do so.

We need to merely look at the model of creativity as first defined in 1926 by social psychologist Graham Wallas to see the point. Wallas defined the four stages of creativity as:

1. Preparation. In which the problem or work is first investigated. This is when you’re looking at the canvas and gathering art supplies, or evaluating the problem environment in order to better understand what’s possible.

2. Incubation Once you’re prepared to start the task at hand, an unconscious process of deliberation takes place. Sometimes our sense of preparation isn’t entirely accurate and we find ourselves stuck, staring at a blank page. Other times our preparation has come after some level of incubation. In each case, the process of ruminating on an idea, of “combinatory play” must take place.

3. Illumination Once we are mentally (and physically) prepared to tackle the task, and upon giving ourselves ample time for ideas to incubate in our minds, we should find ourselves encountering an almost uncontrollable phase of illumination: of having ideas.

4. Verification Lastly, we find ourselves producing the work or tackling the challenge with the new ideas and thoughtfulness behind us.

In any pursuit of creative ideas, the process is always the same. What changes is typically how we approach each step and what we allow ourselves to do along the way.

The artist that does not prepare, or allow ideas to incubate, misses out on the work that matters most. The strategist who does not allow for incubation to take place and for illumination to occur naturally undoubtedly misses vital information.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an artist, writer, musician, dancer, marketer, entrepreneur, barista, or student: the process for generating novel ideas is the same. Use it.

Photo via Flickr.



What does creativity feel like?

What do we mean when we say we “aren’t feeling” creative?

If at the end of the day you don’t feel a sense of creative accomplishment, does that mean you haven’t been creative? I’d argue feeling uncreative might simply mean your belief of what creativity should feel like and what it actually feels like are two different things.

One of the most common examples is feeling of exhausted or lazy. We lounge around or stare at a blank screen or white sheet of paper and feel like we just don’t have a creative spark in us. Here we’re confusing the act of creation with the process of creativity. The first requires production (something written, or drawn, or played), while the second requires nothing more than thinking. Day dreaming can be a sign of creative thinking, yet how often do we allow ourselves to lay about when we want to play with our creative muse?

If we haven’t produced something, we feel as though we haven’t been creative, we focus on that point. But, in reality, creativity is more about understanding and exploration, two things that can occur entirely in the mind and which do not require any tangible results or byproducts.

There’s more here to think about as well: if we don’t feel some deep, warm feeling of insight within us, or the sudden shock of a spark in the back of our minds, we think we haven’t been creative. We feel like we must not be a creative person because we lack the sudden flash of a glowing idea in a regular lives.

But creativity can often be a long, dull process of attention, processing, and synthesis. It’s not all fun exploration and the sudden flash of an idea. Arguably the only part of creativity we ever really “feel” is the catch of an initial idea or curiosity, or the ping of a possible solution or insight. Everything between is just regular feelings of being and living.

It’s no wonder many of us don’t typically “feel” creative, while others mistakenly think they don’t have a capacity to be creative at all.

What we think creativity feels like is often some type of magical “aha!” moment. But the reality is that creativity feels like a more deliberate, slow understanding and exploration.

Photo by Sophia Louise.