The Best of Creative Something in 2015

For nearly a full decade I’ve been exploring what it means to be creative, how creativity works in the mind, and how creativity can influence the world. I’m thankful to have so many of you along for the ride.

Today, at the end of 2015, I’m excited to say that Creative Something will continue to preserve my exploration into the creative mind and artistic self. If you’re just joining us on this journey now, welcome!

As I do every year, here are the top posts for the year, sorted by popularity based on how many people viewed each post.

1. To be creative is to decisively use these six things

2. The one thing I wish someone had told me about creative ability

3. How good ideas are formed

4. Creating the ideal cognitive conditions for creativity

5. Creating the ideal cognitive conditions for creativity

6. Why organize your ideas, and how to do it

7. Why we doodle, journal, and sometimes think out loud

8. Small steps toward energizing your creativity

So there you have it!

I look forward to writing more here in the coming weeks, and hope you’ll be here to join me. As always, you can explore past year’s best posts right here.

Thanks for reading.

Overcoming the uncomfortable fears of creativity

Creativity is uncomfortable. At some point we have to get over that fact if we want to utilize our creative capabilities to solve problems, innovate, and inspire our inner genius.

We can talk all we want about being creative, but when it comes down to acting on what we say, we tend to hesitate or run the other way. Saying “I’m creative” and then doing the same thing, day-in and day-out, is a conflicted way to live. We want to be more creative, yet we make excuses and justify remaining in the realm of what we know because things are much easier that way.

We brush off newness because it’s easier and less painful to simply do things how we’ve always done them instead of trying something new. New is scary, risky, and often unpredictable. Yet creativity requires newness, either in the form of new experiences or new ways of thinking, or some combination of the two.

If you want to be more creative you have to come to terms with the fact that you’re going to feel uncomfortable. You’ll have to occasionally break away from the feelings of safety and comfort that comes with routine and experience.

While overcoming the distressing aspects of creative thinking isn’t always easy, it is possible.

“If you always make the right decision, the safe decision, the one most people make, you will be the same as everyone else.”– Paul Arden

I know first-hand how difficult it can be to pursue creativity. Even after almost a decade writing on what it means to be creative, I still fall back to tried-and-true patterns and behaviors. Why? Because it’s effortless and comfortable. What we know is easy. Creativity is considerably more of a challenge. I know that the only way to tap into my creative capacity is to embrace the uncomfortable feelings it brings with it: trying new things, exploring, experimenting, and occasionally making mistakes.

So how do we break through the barrier of uncomfortableness?

One place we can start to learn how to become comfortable with the uncomfortableness of creativity is by looking toward psychology, specifically the field of behavioral therapy.

You don’t need to know much about behavioral therapy in order to benefit from what it can do. Really all we need to know is that behavioral therapy (sometimes called cognitive behavioral therapyor analytical psychotherapy) uses cognitive methods which can alter or help us overcome cognitive habits; often negative, harmful ones.

Behavioral therapy involves things like positive reinforcement of good behaviors or attempting to understand and change the conditions or environments that encourage negative behaviors.

The theory is that we can use the same strategies and methods we’ve used in our lives to develop our existing habits (like shying away from new and risky things) to develop better, healthier habits (like taking more reasonable risks and embracing creativity). We can train ourselves to become more creativity-seeking rather than embracing our ingrained behaviors around risk-aversion. Recent research into behavioral therapy shows that it works for everything from overcoming a fear of flying, to some more unusual types of fears. So why not helping us overcome our fear of the unknown, of uncertainty, and of the challenges we’ll face with creativity?

Within behavioral therapy I’ve become interested in a method known as exposure therapy (or desensitization).

Exposure therapy is a method of progressively being exposed to more and more stimulus, either through real-world scenarios, imagining or role-playing, or some blend of techniques.

The method is used primarily for helping people overcome phobias (like a fear of spiders or heights), but it’s also been successful in overcoming things such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and post tramautic stress disorder (PTSD).

How cognitive behavioral therapy plays a role in creativity

We can put our ingrained, culturally-driven, fear of risk and newness into the same place exposure therapy aims to cure by treating the uneasiness different situations and ideas spur in us.

It works like this: you progressively expose yourself to more and more unique and challenging situations over a short amount of time.

This can involve simple things like trying a new type of food at home, going to a new restaurant, walking in a part of town you typically down explore, or asking a new question to everyone you see in a day.

Once you start to feel comfortable with these small, fairly risk-free challenges, you can bump-up the challenge: try a new creative hobby, start asking strange questions to complete strangers, travel far away (alone, preferably to a place you don’t speak the language), draw on the walls of your home, invite five friends over and cook a completely new recipe for them, and so on.

By slowly exposing ourselves to more and more creative efforts (new and potentially valuable experiences) we begin to see how thinking in new and different ways, and experiencing new things, can be beneficial rather than risky chances.

It’s important to note that if we’re not feeling challenged by our experiences or thoughts, we’re not really exposing ourselves to more creative opportunities. Dr. Katherina K. Hauner tells us:

“The most important thing is to keep engaged with the feared situation and not avoid it, even though it can be uncomfortable and difficult at first.”

If you’re looking for challenges to expose yourself to, try my book of more than 100 unique things to try: The Creativity Challenge.

By nature, creativity can be frightening and even intimidating. To be creative we must overcome our fears or concerns around stepping outside of what we know and feel as comfortable, embracing new and diverse experiences. It’s only by overcoming these fears that we allow ourselves to fully unlock our creative capacity as human beings.

Don’t waste time wondering whether or not your ideas are creative

Being able to determine whether or not an idea is worth your time and energy is difficult to do. As far as I can tell: nobody had been able to perfect the art of evaluating ideas.

I can’t predict how successful my ideas will be, but even well known creative geniuses, the Einsteins and Edisons and Jobs of history, have been known on occasion to reject ideas that later went on to be remarkable ideas. They equally made big bets on ideas that flopped.

Nobody really has this ability, despite what the world may have you believe.

Creative ideas are different by definition, it makes sense that we would struggle to effectively evaluate their potential when we first encounter them.

In 1858, for example, then president of the Linnean Society of London, Thomas Bell, boldly stated: “The year which has passed has not been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize the department of science.” Except that year was the same one Charles Darwin first published his theory of evolution and natural selection in. Bell failed to see how revolutionary Darwin’s could revolutionize the world, yet it went on to do exactly that.

Before he dreamed up a radical way to shift the assembly line into high gear, Henry Ford had the idea to create a commercial rubber plantation in the Amazon jungle. The business failed miserably. Despite what we might believe about Ford as a result of his historic success in the automotive industry, he too was prone to putting his time and energy into bad ideas.

Steve Jobs maybe best known as a creative genius for his work on the iPhone, but his history is littered with mistakes, from one of the worlds first palm computing platforms (the Apple Newton) to a mostly failed attempt at consumer computers (NeXT).

Everyone we tout as being a creative great stumbled their way through bad ideas in order to get the lucky few that made their lives or careers so grand. Their ability to pick out the great ideas from the not-so-great ideas is on-par with yours and mine.

There is no trick to picking great ideas: you either recognize their feasible value or you take a leap.

Of course experience and realm knowledge can help make decisions on which ideas are worthwhile and which are not somewhat easier, but even then you are relying on what you know you know and less of what you don’t know you don’t know. Creative ideas are difficult to gauge because they are new and different. It makes sense that the best creative thinkers among us are often dabbling around with multiple ideas. They might seem confident in their ideas (and, at some level, that confidence is remarkably important), but they are guessing just as much as you or I are.

Try not to worry too much about whether or not your ideas will be successful (I know I’m terrible at guessing).

The only real way to stumble on the best ideas is to have many ideas.

Focus on brainexploring, not brainstorming, to have ideas

You can stumble on more creative ideas by replacing brainstorming with an equal amount of time dedicated to simply asking questions.

Brainstorming was a creative thinking exercise which sparked in 1953. The exercise entails withholding criticism and judgement while trying to come up with many ideas in a set amount of time.

For all of the praise brainstorming has received over the last six-plus decades, it’s also gotten a lot of flack and produced many mixed results. In corporate settings, brainstorming tends to lead to groupthink and biases in possible solutions. Brainstorming on the individual leads to more of the same rather than actual, novel ideas.

In my own experience, brainstorming only occasionally leads to ideas which are both novel and valuable. More often than not it leaves me feeling unaccomplished, like I have run my brain in circles trying to find something I think should be somewhere in there, but often isn’t.

Traditional models of brainstorming cause us to lead ourselves in a direction we think is more creative but in reality is only more restrictive. Brainstorming is the process of evaluating where we think good ideas should come from rather than where they actually are likely to come from: the places we aren’t thinking of.

So I recently began experimenting with a new exercise for creative thinking, one that is less likely to lead to biases and much more likely to take myself or my thinking group to surprising places. It’s worked remarkably well for me, and it might work well for you too.

The exercise is simple: ask questions, don’t try to answer them, then ask more questions.

The more curious I get about the questions, the more surprised I am in the direction they lead me. One questions leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another, and by the time I’m 60 questions in I’ve begun to think about my problem or project in an entirely new way.

Rather than taking our minds to where we expect ideas or solutions to be, asking questions (and questions about our questions, and so on) leads to more insights than trying to answer or find solutions to simply one or two rounds of questions.

It’s a simple enough exercise which helps avoid biased, basic thinking by forcing you to dig into the details of, and relationships between, ideas.

The next time you set aside time for brainstorming, instead see where your mind goes when you dedicate the time to constantly asking questions and nothing more. Where will it take you? What details will you stumble on? How will the details help you uncover new information? How will that information relate to other ideas you weren’t initially thinking of? How will those relative ideas unravel more details? What happens when brainstorming becomes brain-exploration?

A machine for ideas exists

I was just sitting here wondering what it would feel like to plug into an “idea machine.”

In this fantasized scenario, the idea machine would be something you can sit down in front of, or next to, maybe attaching a wire or two to your scalp or putting on a type of lightweight sci-fi helmet. Then, with the light touch of a button, creativity in your mind is enabled.

Your mind would feel utterly focused. Concepts in the world would be connected in ways you never realized they could connect. You would see details that are only obvious in hindsight. Everything would suddenly “click” or, to use a more appropriate metaphor, flash on like a lightbulb.

Such a machine would feel empowering, exciting, and enlightening. We could solve almost any problem, see infinite possibilities, and turn our imagined ideas into reality.

Yet, as I started to think about what this idea machine might feel like, I began to realize the potential power of such a machine is useless if we don’t know where to aim it.

What good is being able to connect any idea to any other idea if there’s no clear intention or, at the very least, frame of focus?

Without that focus anything can connect to anything else. Without having to enter a “focus” or “purpose” into this imagined idea machine, the machine is just as good as our imaginations.

Because through imagination we can already combine anything with anything else. We can imagine our ideas as real, tangible, things. We can fathom solutions to any problem.

It’s only when we give ourselves a clear focus (or purpose) that all of the possible connections we can fathom between ideas have to rub up against reality, a reality that can often add to those connections just as much as it constraints them.

And this, to me, is really what the idea machine is all about. As fun as it is to sit here and imagine what such a powerful machine might feel like to use, the reality is that such a machine absolutely already exists. Of course you know the answer, the idea machines are our brains.

They’re fully capable of finding connections between ideas in the world, to resolving problems, and turn concepts into reality. All it takes is focus (or purpose) and information. Plug these two things into the idea machine between your ears and these things are absolutely possible. And that feels pretty good.

You don’t need some magical machine or some brain pill to be more creative. You need to focus on what it is you’re trying to do, then give yourself time to explore that interest to the best of your abilities.

Sometimes that means dedicating hours upon hours researching and doodling or writing, sometimes that means collaborating with someone else who has more information (or perspective) than you do.

The idea machine exists. It’s merely waiting for you to more or less input the necessary information and pressing “go.”