Why the best creatives are often makers too

When you look at what differentiates many creative thinkers from everyone else, one common thing is their craftiness. That is: their ability to not merely have ideas, but to execute on them too. Unequivocally, the most diligent creatives are also builders.

The best creative thinkers build things, either as part of their creative work or in their free time. They build businesses, apps, websites, books, artwork, jewelry, groups or conferences, toys, furniture, clothing, you name it.

Look out at any of the most prolific creatives of history and you'll see the point is true: each was not merely someone who had good ideas, but someone who built ideas into real, tangible things too.

But why? Why are so many creatives also makers? One reason is simply that it’s hard to critique something that doesn’t exist yet. To determine whether an idea is really any good or not you have to get it out of your head. Ideas are useless until we get them out of our heads, to see what they can do. You have to build the ideas in order to effectively evaluate them.

When you have an idea it exists as a volatile connection of neurons in your brain, little else. And because an idea exists entirely within the brain, it's possible to do anything with it. You can imagine an idea as being remarkable, or useless. You can imagine it being difficult to execute and build, or you can imagine it being effortless. You can imagine the idea exactly as it should be with little to no regard for how it may actually work.

Until the idea gets out of your head, its value is going to be difficult to accurately measure. You have to know how to get ideas out into the world in order to better gauge them when they occur.

Creatives are also makers because making gives us an additional layer of thinking about the world around us. And this is important: to understand what ideas we might build, we must have a better understanding of how things get built in the first place.

Instead of seeing something simply for what it is, the creative maker can view the object as many different parts, each with its own history, attributes, and modifiable values. This sense that can only be developed by making. It’s hard to know what goes into making anything if you’ve never built something.

Harvard researchers are beginning to study this notion—that learning to build enables more creative thinking—by looking at schools which teach making over more traditional, classroom-based learning. As Director of DesignME program at Park Day School puts it:

“In my experience with the kids, [building] allows them to more quickly gain a deeper understanding of what makes up that object and its purposes and its complexities... As kids try to express their understanding in three dimensions it adds so much more to how they engage with a concept and wrap their mind around it."

Having a better understanding of what it takes to build something also helps explain why so many creatives tend to be artistic or entrepreneurial: because those are the exercises with which they learn to look, adjust perspective, make do with what is available or be resourceful, and try things before evaluating them.

It's a common behavior to critique an idea before we've had sufficient time to ruminate on it. We tend to be our own biggest obstacles to creative thinking. But by learning to be makers—learning to get ideas out of the cloudy space within our heads—we can develop better habits for identifying which ideas are worthwhile and which may not be.

If you want to be more creative: learn to make. A painting, a draft of a novel, a ceramic bowl, a piece of jewelry, a video, a photographic print, a picture frame, anything that can help you grasp the process of turning an idea into something real and tangible. Also surround yourself by creatives who make. You never know what insight they might share or perspective they can help you see from.

Creative ideas come when you consider parts of the whole

The best way to have a good idea is to have many ideas. And arguably the best way to have many ideas is to expand your perspective of the thing or space you’re working with.

You can expand your perspective in a number of ways: by talking with others to hear their ideas and thoughts, by reading perspectives of history, or by adjusting your perspective of any particular thing or circumstance.

Of all the inspirational options available to a creative thinker, it's the last one—of taking the time to expand perspective through attention and imagination—that is easiest for uncovering ideas. All it takes is the willingness to observe and question what’s already in front of you, that’s it.

You can expand your perspective by breaking apart the thing you’re looking at or the space around it, by asking questions or zooming in/out either literally or figuratively. In doing so you open up the possibility of nearly endless ideas because the complexity of any single thing is the sum of its parts and history.

Looking at a wall is straight-forward enough, but changing your perspective to see what the wall is made of, who made it, or its history, means you have a vast library of information to consider when drumming up ideas.

You can look at any thing and consider each of the attributes of it, then go further to consider the attributes of those attributes and so on. A shoe is a shoe until you really look at it and it’s parts. The sole, the shoelaces, the tongue and toe tip. Further into any of those parts continues expanding your perspective of what makes a shoe into a shoe: the fabrics, plastics, and other materials.

Or consider the patterns used for stitching the materials of a shoe together: how do the patterns strengthen or weaken the shoe as a whole? How do the materials interact with each other: is a single, long thread stitched through two parts stronger than many shorter threads? Where might glue have been used? What other materials or patterns could be used for each component? How does changing any of those influence the larger whole?

Such questions are how companies like Nike were able to invent the Flyknit shoe.

Nike looked at the concept of a shoe and began thinking about using high-strength threads sewn using long stitches rather than short ones to shape the bulk of the body. Focusing on threads and long stitches was a novel move in the shoe industry, one that propelled innovation in the company and industry as a whole. An added benefit of relying heavily on the threads and stitches was a decrease in manufacturing costs, less use of materials overall, and the bonus of having the shoe designed around key points of support (something overly rubber or plastic shoes cannot do).

These types of ideas are possible even if you don’t work in the shoe industry, because all you need to do is observe, question, and imagine.

Often a novice will enter an industry and revolutionize it by observing and questioning. It’s how Elon Musk has sparked innovation in electric cars, space transport, and more. It’s the same approach Steve Jobs took to personal computing and Jeff Bezos has taken to online shopping. Even artists such as Olivo Barbieri used this approach to push “tilt-shift” photography into the mainstream.

The way each of these individuals were able to come up with such novel and useful ideas wasn’t through some otherworldly intellect or creative genius. Each merely worked diligently to adjust their perspective of what a thing could be or how it might work, then imagined alternatives. They were able to imagine many different ideas then narrow down to the most useful ones.

In your own life and work you can generate many new ideas by looking at the attributes—the texture, function, parts and components, even history—of any thing, then imagining what would happen if any of them changed. If you replaced something, removed it entirely, or used more of the attribute (like Nike did with their thread-designed shoes).

If you want to have many ideas: don't merely look at a thing or problem in its entirety, instead consider the sums of the whole and how changing any one of them will change the larger parts.

Can you be a creative thinker without being a problem solver?

What does it mean to be a creative thinker but not a problem solver?

Someone who solves problems is just that: a person who solves problems. To be a creative thinker is someone who thinks creatively, but what exactly does that mean?

The definition of creativity is a bit fuzzy, even for experts who study the subject. What is generally considered as “creative” are ideas which are both novel and useful.

Imagining a way to toast bread until it’s burnt to the point it disintegrates is a pretty unique idea, but not a very useful one. Likewise, coming up with an idea on how to use a gasoline engine to propel a vehicle forward is useful but not so much unique. For an idea to be truly creative it must be both unique and valuable.

By this definition of creativity you cannot really be a creative thinker unless you’re also solving a problem; an idea isn’t truly creative unless it’s valuable, which is another way of saying it solves some problem.

However, that doesn’t mean all creative thinkers necessarily start their thinking by identifying a problem to be solved. In many cases a creative idea comes as a result of an accident, an observation, or happenstance. But in each instance the person coming up with the idea is both solving a problem (valuable) and coming up with something novel (something nobody else in their “world” has come up with).

That is to say: it absolutely is possible to come up with a creative idea without explicitly thinking of problem. But in generating a creative idea you’ll be solving some type of problem.

You can be a problem solver without thinking creatively (a solution to the problem being solved may already be in existence). You can’t be a creative thinker without being a problem solver (being capable of coming up with ideas that are both unique and valuable).

The trick is to consistently be generating ideas that are unique and/or valuable. Those ideas don't necessarily need to solve a large or immediate problem. As Clayton Christensen writes in his book Competing Against Luck:

Even if a theory doesn’t apply to some particular application, it’s still valuable because knowing when a particular theory doesn’t help explain something will allow you to turn to others to find better answers."

The Best of Creative Something 2017

2017 is almost done, and this January 1st will mark the ten year anniversary of Creative Something!

Another year of inspiration and creative ideas. That means that for ten years I've been blogging here about everything related to creativity, inspiration, ideas, and innovation. I'm excited to see what the next ten years brings! But before that: here's a look back at the top articles from the past year.

  1. Destroy your work in order to fully explore it
  2. Your creativity is limited to what you know
  3. It's not enough to have ideas, you have to learn how to bridge them too
  4. Five books you should read to learn more about creativity
  5. If you do nothing, nothing happens
  6. A creative life means opening a lot of small doors
  7. What to do when there's no time for creativity

All ideas want is to fit

Ideas are out there waiting to be captured or imagined. They travel around us in all different sorts of ways: from communication to entertainment to dreams.

All ideas want is to find a place to fit, to exist. There may be ideas that have been trying to fit for a very long time, only when things are right and ready can the ideas fit into place, into existence.

Steven Johnson calls this need to fit “the adjacent possible” in his book Where Good Ideas Come From. Johnson explains that what’s possible at any certain, specific, point in time changes depending on the circumstances around it. The iPhone was only possible ten years ago because everything it took to make it exist finally aligned. You couldn’t have invented the microwave 5,000 years ago, it would have been impossible to contemplate let alone imagine. The same goes for computers, televisions, radios, gaming consoles, and so on.

Once the technologies behind each idea became available, the ideas readily race toward existence. Even now, as you read this, there are ideas waiting to be not constructed or imagined, but simply found. Like pieces to a puzzle that has yet to be put together.

Ideas merely want to exist. But if there’s nowhere for an idea to go, if you’re not looking for it—to help find a place for it to fit—it moves along. Ideas desire to fit in somewhere.

In her book Big Magic, the brilliant writer Elizabeth Gilbert refers to this desire for ideas to exist as simply: muse. Ideas want to feel wanted. Gilbert says ideas will wait for you, like a stranger visiting your home, until you welcome them in. She writes:

“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us—albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.”

Your job as someone who creates and tinkers and ruminates is simply to make room for ideas to fit. To understand where they might come from and then open yourselves to them. If ideas want to exist, it’s your job as a creative thinker to help them. One way is simply to ask a lot of questions. qQuestions create a place for answers to fit.

Clayton Christensen, Harvard teacher and author, explains: “Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question — you have to want to know — in order to open up the space for the answer to fit.”

Ideas want to exist, you have to create a space for them to fit. Asking a lot of questions, being open to new experiences, and freeing-up your mind, are how you’re going to do it.