The best of Creative Something 2016

As 2016 draws to a close, it marks a full nine years of writing on this blog.

Things have changed over the years and, as a result, 2017 is going to bring some changes to Creative Something. Some big, some small, but chnage is coming. Before then, I wanted to take some time (as I do every year) to share the top posts for the year, sorted by popularity based on how many people viewed each post over the past year.

1. How jumping between projects provokes creativity

2. How to build a life of inspiration in four easy steps

3. What does creativity mean, really?

4. Where exactly does creativity exist within the brain?

5. The importance of getting ideas out of your head

6. Less is more in creative work, but consistency is key

7. The surprising truth about making ideas happen

So there you have it!

Hope to see you in the new year! As always, you can explore past year’s best posts right here.

Thanks for reading.

What’s absurd today is brilliant tomorrow

Twenty years ago it would have been absurd to think a telephone would ever make for a good camera. But here we are, billions of us walking around with small phones slash cameras slash super computer in our pockets.

The way we got here wasn’t through ignoring the absurd. Nor was the world of today made possible because of one person, or one technological achievement. What happened was the story of what a phone could be eventually aligned with what was possible and needed. But if we had never wondered whether or not a phone would make for a good camera, or internet browser, or supercomputer, who knows where we’d be.

The same is true for the airplane. The tenacity of the Wright brothers to keep throwing themselves off a hill to prove engine-assisted flight was not only crazy, but possible, propelled the travel world into an age of remarkable innovation. Imagine trying to tell someone from the Middle Ages that people in 2016 were flying literally around the world and they’d appropriately tell you: humans can’t fly, the idea is asinine.

Creativity requires us to sometimes be absurd. New ideas rarely come from what we already know as true and possible. Instead, the most creative ideas are born of absurdity and happenstance. When the timing is right, even the most ridiculous idea becomes palpable.

The problem for us as creative thinkers is first exploring what absurd ideas have yet to be explored, then identifying when they’ll become possible. The trap is that the more of an expert you become on the landscape around an idea, the more inclined you are to ignore the absurdities. The Wright brothers got their start working on bicycles and printing presses.

To truly embrace the absurd ideas required to think creatively, we must embrace our naivety and often run head-first into the unknown. Rather than brushing off otherwise silly sounding ideas, or doubting ourselves whenever we have them, we’d be wise to look at the ideas and ask ourselves: why this, why now? More often than not what we get when we dive into the absurd instead of immediately brushing it off is insight. Insight into why an idea isn’t realistically possible, what it would take to make it possible, or how to adapt what we know and the resources we have to make it a reality.

This is the power of the creative. They aren’t afraid of embracing the absurd, because they know that’s where all great ideas really come from eventually.

What are the absurd ideas you’ve shunned? What if you stopped doubting them and instead began exploring them?

Write to better understand your creative potential

Writing changes how we think. To write is to invoke new ways of exploring ideas, expressing thoughts, and uncovering creative possibilities.

When we write, our brains begin to think in terms of prose and narrative, structure and meaning, not merely patterns and dynamic connections between invisible forces. Writing can unlock entire new patterns of thinking for us, similar to how exposing ourselves to new languages, cultures, or even tools, influence our thinking.

When an architect looks at a room, they see everything behind the aesthetic: the way the walls are constructed, how everything is supported and frames, the subtle details most everyone else will overlook. Similarly, when a writer looks at a room, they think of the details nobody else can see. The story the room tells. The characters and their stories, how it all relates to interweaving moments and narratives.

Writing is not merely a way to turn our thoughts into tangible constructs, but it’s also a way to change how we think what we do. You can think of writing as a cognitive technology we use to think in ways other than how we typically do. In our brains, thoughts are presented as networks between many different concepts. When we write, thoughts have to mutate into something we can put onto the page in a more structured and transferable way.

The same goes for drawing, dancing, designing, coding, playing music, and speaking in other languages. When we do these things they require ideas to transform from intangible, ill-defined networks of relationships into more structured representations of themselves. It’s through this transformation that our thinking itself changes. When we conduct these things, not only do we need to have the ideas behind hem, we must find also ways to transfer and communicate them through written formats, spoken words, or other tangible means.

The tools we use to conduct this work influences our thinking as well. The architect who relies on mathematical formulas and software to conduct her business is more likely to think in terms of equations and structure. The artist who expresses himself in cubism is likely to see things from more abstract vantage points. It’s the writer who sees the connections amongst things and the invisible spaces between them.

As Michael Nielsen explains: “You begin to think with the interface, learning patterns of thought that would formerly have seemed strange, but which become second nature…[these] make it easy to have insights or make discoveries that were formerly difficult or impossible.”

The power of writing is that it enables us to, as Michael explains, have insights and think in ways that were previously difficult or impossible to have. Any activity is beneficial in this regard, but it’s writing which enables us to quickly capture thoughts as they occur, to reflect on them in such a manipulatable way. Writing captures these fleeting concepts we call “ideas” and puts them bare in front of us, to explore and manipulate and better understand.

If you want to better understand your creative potential, try writing. A few words a day can go a long way.

Experimenting with small daily changes to spur creativity

We tend to think of ideas as singular things. Our very idea of what it means to have an idea revolves around this notion of the idea being a single thing, which pops into our mind at the most opportunistic time.

In reality, ideas consist of many different constructs connected within our brains. When we have an idea what we really have is a connection between many, many different concepts in our mind. Ideas aren’t any one, singular thing. They are many things connected together into something more than any individual part. And of course we know all of this at some high level of thinking, but how often do we really stop to think about this fact?

To be more creative, more of the time, we must think about the individual parts that make up any one idea. Then we must imagine what happens to the larger sum if we change any one aspect of the parts.

Change any one point that makes up the idea, and you change the idea.

This is true for everything in our lives. If you change what you wear to work one day, that will affect how you think about the work you do. If you change what you eat for breakfast, how you spend your mornings, the route you take to work or school in the morning, how you talk to other people, or how you spend your downtime, you affect your entire idea of what you think about your life.

What would happen if you remove one aspect of something? What if you replaced one part with something completely different? What if you magnified it, enlarged it, or duplicated it? These are all questions that lead to creative insights. Not always, but when they’re asked often enough and about enough of the individual parts of any idea.

Often these subtle changes of understanding an idea occur on accident, when someone is only paying enough attention to catch the accident and reap the benefits (or disastrous effects). Penicillin was one such subtle change which revolutionized medicine. Chocolate chip cookies, too, were a subtle but happy accident. The Macintosh computer changed what the world thought was possible with computers and the airplane completely revolutionized all forms of transportation, communication, business, and shipping.

In my own life I’ve begun to conduct small weekly challenges in order to spur more of these small changes every day.

I know that my understanding of fundamental ideas is biased by my past experiences; I can’t always see the pieces that make up anything I’m looking at, or thinking about. So I’m trying to make small changes to see what bubbles up as a result.

At the beginning of every week, I set a new “challenge” for myself and spend the following five days seeing what happens when I follow through. Some challenges are more difficult than others, some are more familiar. The point isn’t to upend my life, only to help highlight what happens when I change certain parts of it.

I’ve gone vegan for a week, woken up at 5am to exercise, spent 30 minutes every night reading, and delivered hand-written letters to my partner every day (she, too, is participating in this weekly challenge experiment with me). The challenges we have lined up next fall everywhere on the spectrum from mundane to semi-absurd. We’ll take a new route to work every morning, meditate each day, not allow ourselves to go immediately home from work each night, only message each other in French (which neither of us speak well), paint every day, explore new parts of the city, write short novels daily, learn to knit and sew, take portraits of strangers, eat only with our bare hands, and more.

The changes we make don’t need to be dramatic or absurd. We don’t need to alter the biggest parts of anything in order to innovate on it, or to spur creative ideas out of it. What we need to do is change, something, anything, in order to see how the change affects the larger whole. When we make these changes, even imaginary ones, we start to see things from new and unique perspectives. That’s where the creative stuff really likes to hide.

And, of course, if you need some ideas for challenges to try, I wrote a book on that very thing: The Creativity Challenge.

The creator or the critic

The best way to change anything is to do something about it. The advice is mostly obvious, yet how often do we find ourselves complaining or wishing for things without taking action?

We want to make more money but find ourselves paralyzed at the thought of doing more work. We want to be more creative but regularly stick with routine or fail to surround ourselves with anything inspiring. We want to turn our hobbies into more fulfilling careers but never dedicate enough time to turning them into our livelihood.

There’s a great way of thinking about this stuff I’ve tried to keep in mind through my own life: if something is important enough, you’ll make time for it.

Generating new ideas, working on side projects, becoming a better creator, writing, meditator, or artist, all require time investments. If you can’t find a book out there you think is worth reading, you should write one that is. If you’re not finding the type of inspiring work in the world you feel you need most, create it. If you’re not happy with your work, start taking steps toward doing different work.

These things aren’t going to happen through wishful thinking or complaining on the Internet. And there isn’t a shortcut to these things happening either, no matter how many self-help books are out there with titles like: “The Secret to Being More Creative Overnight.” If we want these things to occur in our lives, the only shortcut is knowing there is no shortcut.

Dedicating just a few brief moments of our time to the things we want changed can make a tremendous difference. Just five minutes can go a long way.

Five minutes is enough time to strengthen or break apart our assumptions about the work itself. It’s enough time to plan the next series of five minutes in the future. It’s enough time to reach out for help, to gather the necessary tools, or create a formula for how to get from the world of today to the one you’re imagining. Small steps toward big impact. That’s how things happen in the real world.

But nothing happens if you don’t first start. Nothing happens if all you do is send a tweet or rant to a friend.

Of course the critic needs no more time than a minute to construct their argument. The creator often needs all the time in the world just to get an idea put onto the page. One exists in the past while the other presses toward the future, shaping it to fit her vision.

Here’s the thing: if you’re not one, you’re the other. There is no in-between.

You either spend your time wishing you had more time to change things, or you spend it doing whatever you can to make change.