The best of Creative Something 2012

For the last five years – as of January 1st, 2013 – I’ve been exploring what it means to be creative and how to get more of it in our lives.

During the year 2012, nearly half a million people joined in that exploration here on Creative Something. There were a lot of big discoveries, and even more little ones, but through it all we pursued creative thinking, explored neurology, dove into creative psychology, and got ourselves motivated to create and think outside the box.

As we approach a new year of exploration and creative insights I wanted to take a minute to first thank everyone who has supported this website over the last five years. Whether you subscribed, shared a post on Twitter or Facebook, or told your friends or colleagues about Creative Something, thank you.

A tradition I’ve held since I first started blogging here is to go over the past year’s best posts. It’s a great way to get caught-up if you’ve missed out on anything, and it’s a good reminder of what we’ve covered too. So, without further ado, here’s what was on Creative Something during 2012. Enjoy.

1. Creativity takes no excuses.

A good reminder that there are no excuses for being stale with your ideas and work. Creativity really requires effort, and there’s nothing – time, lack of knowledge, creative block – that should stand in your way.

2. The psychology behind people believing they aren’t creative.

If you ask the question “Who is an artist?” to a room full of children, nearly every one of them will raise their hand. However, if you ask a room full of adults the very same question, you’d be lucky to get one or two raising their hand. Why is that? This post explores the psychology behind it.

3. How to be a successful creative.

What is it that successful creatives do that unsuccessful ones don’t? This fun, concise graphic explains a very important aspect you need to know in order to live a successful creative life.

4. 10 things nobody told you about being creative.

A superb, illustrated list of creative advice from artist and writer Austin Kleon. His list of ten things he wish he had been told when he was younger is sound insight for anyone pursuing creativity today.

5. The best place to find creative ideas.

The only pie chart you’ll need to look at in order to learn about where the best creative ideas come from.

6. Creating isn’t easy, try not to forget.

A powerful article that reminds us: creating isn’t as widely attributed to success because it does take work. When creatives forget that important tidbit, it yields lower-quality work. But when it’s remembered… wonderful things happen.

So that’s it for 2012. Thanks again for reading. Posting will resume in 2013.

The power of naive questions

It was a warm fall day when Paul Davies, a celebrated physicist slash cosmologist slash author from Arizona State University, received the call.

While Paul had spent the majority of his life working in science innovation, publishing 19 popular-science books (even more to-date) and leading many academic studies, the person on the other end of the phone that day wasn’t interested in physics, necessarily. Instead, the caller wanted to see if Paul would be interested in speaking at a workshop for the National Cancer Institute.

What a nation-wide network of biophysicists, doctors, and cancer researchers wanted to hear from a physicist stumped Paul. He was, up until that phone call, only vaguely aware of what the NCI even was.

Paul was intrigued and said yes, then did what he was best at and made a list of “dumb questions.”

When the workshop came Paul presented his keynote speech and brought up the questions. “Where does metastasis occur? What makes tumour cells suddenly break apart? How could physics contribute to cancer research?”

The keynote was a huge success. Paul’s questions completely clicked and started rolling around in the researchers brains. Suddenly their world – of linear system analysis and cancer cells being something other than a physical object – shifted.

By simply asking questions that he, himself, had about cancer science, Paul was able to invoke creative thinking in countless cancer researchers, doctors, and scientists. The physics of the cosmos and the world around us, it turns out is surprisingly similar to the physics of cancer. Paul’s questions were exactly what the audience needed to hear in order to use their imaginations, look at their work from a different perspective, and start exploring options they hadn’t envisioned before. Through Paul countless ideas and new research methods have risen, and today he influences cancer research more-so than nearly any other physicist alive.

His questions were so inspiring that, two years after his keynote address, the NCI proposed a plan to fund 12 physics-oncology centers around the nation for roughly $120 million. Paul became principal investigator in the physical sciences for the organization and kept doing what he did best: asking questions.

Asking seemingly naive questions, it turns out, is a remarkable way to spur creative thinking.

Stuart Lindsay, one of Paul’s colleagues, said it best: “It takes someone like Paul, constantly nagging, asking disruptive questions, to get people to take a fresh look at their assumptions.”

To have creative ideas you have to ask questions, especially ones that might make you seem naive. It’s in those questions – even the most basic questions – where the brightest flashes of insights appear.

For more on Paul Davies and his work, checkout his 2011 story Physics meets cancer: The disruptor

To be more creative, mix up your work


If you want to be creative in your craft, try changing one element of it from time-to-time.

Take juggling for example. Juggling is believed to have started hundreds of centuries ago in agent Egypt (or China). A picture on one Egyptian tomb depicts several people tossing balls up into the air. For jugglers, balls or small, bean-filled bags are the common prop to juggle and have been for thousands of years.

Yet jugglers can change what they use as a prop in order to improve their form or the experience for watchers.

It’s not uncommon today to see jugglers throwing knives, toys, soccer balls, plates, or martini glasses around in the air. The result is a spectacular show for everyone watching, but it’s also a major victory for the juggler who can know better understand how to juggle. When the times comes to switch back to bean sacks, the juggler who has mastered throwing chainsaws will be able to do it effortlessly.

The same is true of any creative talent as well.

You can stick with the same activity and the same props, but if you want to really grow creatively you have to take your talents into other areas and utilize other approaches.

Because our brains produce creative results when we connect previously unconnected concepts – through signals sent between neurons – the best way to connect more ideas is to place yourself in unique circumstances.

Consider the novelist who stops working on his novel in order to write short-form poetry once a week. Or the musician that makes TV show jingles in her spare time. The painter who takes up graffiti, the tech blogger who writes obituaries for the local paper, or the dancer who masters Jiu-jitsu.

All are examples of taking your talents and abilities and adapting them to something else, something new and different. It’s in those moments of adaptation that we not only learn something new, but we gain insights into our practice and master it all the more.

Today try taking your craft — whatever it is — I and find a way to adapt it to something new. Utilize a new tool or practice a relative craft, see what comes as a result.

Photo via Flickr.

How experiences influence creativity


A simple way to understand creative thinking is to consider it as the process of coming up with new ideas. The ideas don’t have to be new for the world at large (that’s a different process altogether), they just have to be new for you.

So when you have that moment of “eureka!” when you solve a problem, or when see something you overlooked before, that’s you experiencing a creative insight. New ideas are the direct result of millions of neurons – the cells that carry and process electrochemical signals – in your brain suddenly connecting in a way that they weren’t before. That’s really it.

Those connections between neurons is an interesting part of creativity that is occasionally overlooked, though it is really the driving point of all creative thinking.

Between the hippocampus and cerebral cortex of your brain there are about 10 billion neurons alone. Those two sections make up the primary parts of your brain that deal with your knowledge about the world and memories, so they’re crucial to creative thinking and idea interpretation. 10 billion neurons, millions and millions firing every second, to process ideas.

Here’s the thing: neurons function in a way that is important to understand for anyone looking to be more creative (or more rational, or more analytical): the more certain neural connections are made, the stronger those connections become.

For example: if you practice doing crossword puzzles every morning for a year, the part of your brain – the neural connections – that deals with solving crossword puzzles are going to be strengthened and ultimately you’re going to be a bit of a crossword puzzle‒solving champ.

Computational Neuroscientist Paul King explains for us: “…The brain adapts according to use. So if the brain is used extensively in a certain way…then it will get better at that. The way it gets better is that more and more neurons are ‘recruited’ into that function, and the function becomes increasingly organized and exerts an increasing influence on the rest of the brain. So what you are exposed to and what your brain spends its time doing really does shape who you become and what mental skills you (and your brain) have.”

If you really want to be more creative, do creative things regularly. Solve puzzles, doodle, daydream, paint, play a musical instrument and makeup your own songs. But most importantly: do new things every day. Experience more things and you’ll be more creative.

The more things you do, the more connections you’re strengthening in your brain. So go to new places, try new things, explore music and art and movies that you aren’t really interested in. The more you experience new things, the more neural connections you’re strengthening in your brain. The stronger those connections become, the easier it will be to come up with new, creative ideas when you need them most.

It’s a science really, but this is the gist of it. To be more creative, experience more things as often as you can.

Read more about Paul King’s explanation here: If creative and logical thinking take place in different parts of the brain, does switching between these processes frequently inhibit the development of these areas?

Photo by Shiv.

A few thoughts on creative flow

It starts with experiences and your senses. The consumption of many things in a short amount of time. After-all: It’s the ideas and feelings and flavors of life that you consume which will influence what you create, as no idea comes from nothingness.

Once you’ve consumed enough to give spark to a lot of varied ideas, you have to utilize what Freud once referred to as your primary thinking process. Primary process is subconscious, the thinking in your brain that deals with symbolism and condensed thoughts. It’s the part of the brain that isn’t concerned with solving math problems, making coffee, or driving to the grocery store. No heavy thinking, just quickly bouncing around thought after thought (preferably written down at this stage).

The best way to access the primary process is to do what Edward de Bono refers to as “creative pause.” Do something mundane or routine, where the second process type of thinking (the logical process) can take a break and the primary process can utilize more of your thinking capacity than it typically does. Don’t analyze every thought that comes to your mind, just get it down on paper or recorded somehow.

Next, after you’ve got the rough ideas outlined somewhere, you can start using your secondary process. Look at the list of ideas and break them down, ask questions like “what would this look like in five years?” or “how could I make this a reality in less than an hour?”

Write down your answers, don’t just think about them. Things written down (or drawn out, or recorded on your phone) are fairly more tangible than an idea (which you can’t feel or touch or see or otherwise mess with in any practical way).

Now the hard part: create. Creation starts with primary process thinking as well, you want to quickly create something without having to analyze it. Perfection comes later in the game, at this stage you just have to get something out that you can add to or edit or chop up or (in some cases) throw away.

If you can’t explore your ideas in a way representative of their final form, there’s no way to determine whether they’re worthwhile or not. Postpone judgement until you’ve gotten down and dirty.

Ok, now that you’ve created something that you can actually interact with (by seeing, smelling, touching, tasting, or hearing it), then it’s time to switch back into critical mode. What are the parts that don’t work? What can be improved? Is the rough result anything like you imagined, or is it better/worse? What could you do to improve it? Whatever your answers are, either trash the concept or start improving until satisfied. Repeat.

Writers have to quickly jot down ideas for their novel one page at a time, without overly thinking what it is they’re writing. Editing always comes later (but it does come).

The painter who hesitates to make a stroke on the canvas will never make a masterpiece, they have to start and stop and do it all over to create anything worthwhile.

Inventors have to quickly run through possibilities before getting their hands dirty, as do designers and educators and leaders.

The creative process involves a lot of back and forth: creating and evaluating. You can’t do both at the same time to come up with anything worthwhile though. And you can’t truly be creative without both either. It’s finding out where creating and evaluating fit into your process that can get you on the right track.

Photo by Studio Roosegaarde.