The role isolation plays in the creative process

Is isolation a necessary component of creative thinking?

If we want to have a truly unique idea, the theory goes, we must lock ourselves away with inspiration in order to get it. But the reality is that isolation is important for only one stage of the creative process. For everything else, isolation can hinder, not help, creative thinking.

Yet when we look at the most celebrated creatives in history—the likes of Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, Mozart, Picasso, or Jobs—the persona we often see is that of the lone genius. It feels empowering to look at these creative greats and the ideas they brought into the world as individualistic rather than one piece in a larger picture, because it means that we, too, can become great if we can come up with the next big idea ourselves, on our own.

Creativity, we sing, is about individual expression and what we can come up with on our own, so it makes sense that we should isolate ourselves from the rest of the world if we’re to come up with any worthwhile ideas. This misbelief is spread far-and-wide, as even creative experts preach that room away from noise and clutter is the best way to generate novel and valuable ideas.

But the reality is far from that picture. Ideas do not come from isolation, at least not completely. Isolation does play an important role in the creative process, but it’s only one small part in a much larger picture of how ideas come to fruition.

In their research on “Deconstructing the Lone Genius Myth”, researchers Alfonso Montuori and Ronald E. Purser write:

“This modern view of creativity has venerated the artist or genius as a cultural hero, because he or she is someone who has forged something new and original by struggling against and rising above the limiting forces of the conforming masses… To maintain such a stance, the creative person must disengage him or herself from the environment. The resulting isolation is romanticized or even seen as being synonymous with genius.”

But the isolation we often reflect in the creative role is firstly figurative, not literal. In-fact, as Montuori and Purser go on to state, to try and be creative through isolation will greatly hinder the ability to think of effective solutions or ideas. Instead we must do the opposite of isolate ourselves:

“Creative individuals...have a greater tolerance for ambiguity and openness to experience. In other words, they are more open to their environment and find that the environment provides them with the context for creativity.”

It’s hard to create something in the absence of where that something will exist. You cannot, as an example, effectively come up with a new type of art if you don’t understand the world of art as it exists today. You’d fail to create if you weren’t first keenly aware of where the existing forms and processes fall short. You can’t solve a problem if you’re not completely understanding of what the problem is and why it’s a problem to begin with, and you cannot come to understand these things in isolation; with only one perspective you will only have a small picture of reality. What we instead need is a broad picture of the work to be done.

The researchers later state how creatives do not look to isolate themselves for the purpose of creative idea generation, but instead “actively pursue” the environments in which their ideas will be challenged or thrive.

Our best ideas are not the result of some hidden, inner insight, but rather the chemistry of our history, the culture around us, and the environment of the ideas themselves.

In his book Creative Intelligence, author Bruce Nussbaum echoes this sentiment by saying:

“As cool as ‘Aha moments’ are, and as interesting as it is to understand what parts of our brain are working when we’re improvising or solving a problem when we’re in the shower, creativity is about so much more than that moment...and it’s about so much more than the individual experiencing that moment. We increase our creative ability by learning from others, collaborating, sharing.”

So history and research studies have shown that the best ideas—the truly novel and impactful concepts—come not primarily from any one individual, but rather individuals tend to add an important personal layer to the existing concepts or perceptions of a larger community. Our best ideas stem from existing ideas outside ourselves, shaped by historical, cultural, and social exchanges.

Steven Johnson, in his iconic book Where Good Ideas Come From, underlines this notion that the best ideas come from not any single individual, but an individual as part of a whole:

"The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table…This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.”

So if isolation isn’t the key to creative ideas, why do many experts and creative professionals remark on it so often? Because isolation may not be the critical component of creativity, it does play an important role.

Once we have a spark of an idea—by immersing ourselves in the environment that surrounds it—we should give ourselves time and space to let it grow, but only ever so slightly.

We do this through isolation: a walk in the park or a quiet morning meditation.

Albert Einstein cherished his moments of isolation, as he once shared: “Although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head.” Or as Tesla exclaimed: “The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind.”

The important thing here is that the stage of isolation—or idea incubation—isn’t the entire creative process in and of itself. When it comes to isolation: our ideas are best served by limiting that break to only brief intervals that will allow us to synthesize what we’ve taken in.

The purpose of a break is to take all of the noise of the work and world and quiet the incoming signals long enough for our brains to focus. But when there’s little to focus on—if we’ve been isolating ourselves too much—the exercise becomes futile.

Isolation helps us to limit the noise long enough to make sense of what we’ve taken in; it allows us to trim the mental fat, so to speak, in an effort to tune our mental abilities on the pieces that we can influence or which will influence us.

If you want to be creative your best served by not isolating yourself, but instead by immersing yourself in the environments, communities, and spaces where you can be inspired most. Only looking to temporarily isolate yourself once you’ve had enough time immersed in the world.



Fewer expectations can lead to more ideas

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If you’re at a restaurant and you put a child down in front of a table with a big white sheet of paper and some crayons, the inevitable happens.

The child will use the crayons and draw all over the table. They won’t let lack of ideas, fear of judgement, or rules established elsewhere (“don’t draw on the table”) prevent them from happily doodling away. In-fact: what often happens is the adults, given a crayon at the same table, will often doodle too.

Yet sit an adult down in a meeting or class room with a big whiteboard and some markers, then ask them to come up with ideas for solving an important problem and… they’ll stare at the wall.

When our expectations are simple and judgement doesn’t really matter, making is easy. It’s putting the color to the canvas or scribbling until the lines remind us of something else. But when our expectations are high and our job or reputation is on the line, making is a challenge.

A good way to get ideas out—to entertain yourself or to propose a new project at school or work—is to remove the parts of the process that make creation daunting. If you’re running a workshop or exercise: set the stage by making the task one about generating ideas and not instead about solving a problem. Lower expectations, better result. Not always, but more often than the alternative.

Running a brainstorm with fewer expectations and no judgement sounds like a risk when business goals, jobs, or how your peers think of you is at stake. But expecting anyone—including ourselves—to come up with ideas is a risk anyway. You might as well make the whiteboarding process or the writing exercise delightful and fun. You’ll be surprised at just how much more productive the exercise of brainstorming ideas can be when there are fewer expectations to do it right.

When the objective is simply to put color onto the canvas, you often end up with a lot of color.



The role we play in being inspired

We’re most inspired when something fills the gap between what we know and what we don’t. Too often we lie to ourselves about what inspiration is and isn’t, much to our creative detriment.

Inspiration is, at its core, an enlightenment; the process of being exposed to something which connects the missing piece—or pieces—for us; between the known and unknown. Because of this, for any of us to be inspired requires two things:

  1. Some pre-existing level of knowledge or perspective

  2. Curiosity, or a drive to learn more

Despite this, we often, instinctively, mislead ourselves into believing the entirety of inspiration—or being inspired—has everything to do with what we don’t know and little to do with what we do. Our natural inclination is to miss that first part of the puzzle: some pre-existing information, perspective, or state.

We mislead ourselves about what inspiration is and how it works because we either like believing it’s more happenstance than it is work, or because we simply don’t understand its complexities. We want to believe inspiration is all about raw emotion and feeling, instinct and fortune, outside factors the universe may or may not deliver to us. When we think of inspiration as something outside our control, it takes the pressure off us.

Even professional artists, designers, or entrepreneurs, use a lack of inspiration as an excuse for why the project has been started, or finished, or why we struggle to come up with a new idea. Inspiration is an easy thing to blame in any of these situations: it’s often abstract, feely, vague and cloudy. If we’re not doing our best work we can put our hands up in the air and proclaim: “I’m just not inspired.”

In this frame of thinking—the most common perception—inspiration is entirely outside of us.

There isn’t anything critically wrong with thinking of inspiration as an external driver for having great ideas or feeling motivated, but if we take a minute to dig into what exactly inspiration is and how it works—and why we need to work with it rather than wait around for it—we set the stage for bringing inspiration into our work rather than waiting, or hoping, for it to strike.

What exactly is inspiration?

Thumb through any dictionary and you’ll likely find a succinct description: inspiration is the process of being stimulated, to do or feel something.

In science circles, inspiration is sometimes referred to as “spontaneous conceptualization,” a spontaneous and seemingly instantaneous singularity of thought. What was unknown is combined with the known in an instant. If this doesn’t invoke images of a lightbulb suddenly turning on overhead, I’m not sure anything else will.

We can be inspired by a talk, which spurs us to make a change in our work. Or inspired by the words in a book or blog post, which causes us to feel elated and enlightened or energized. We can look out at a beautiful sunrise or sunset and feel inspired to try and celebrate the little things in our lives more often. Or we might find a person who inspires us in some way: to do something different or better.

In creative work inspiration is often a deliberate tool used to provoke creative ideas or new work. In art, inspiration drives the business, causing the creator to act and produce or tinker and experiment.

Long ago in ancient Greece or Rome, inspiration was thought of as a gift given by the gods or muses. A divine ability only a select few—“geniuses”—were capable of possessing. The reason for this prominent belief is easy enough to understand: inspiration felt outside oneself.

It’s far easier to believe something we didn’t know a second ago but suddenly now know was the result of something outside ourselves than it is to believe our brains are the keepers of more than our consciousness is privy to.

So the Greeks believed in the all-knowing muse, and the muse would not visit everyone, nor the same person as they desire. Rather: inspiration was elusive, rare and valuable. It was not something you could generate on-demand, but required another—a muse, a woman, a god—in order to occur. This notion—of inspiration being external from ones self—has remained with us as a society even long after the old Greeks and Romans vanished.

In 19th century England poets and writers believed true inspiration could only come from poets, as they were the ones who were in-tune with divine voices. Today many Christians believe inspiration comes from a Holy Spirit, while writers and artists might think of inspiration as being driven by external chaos—or divine fury—as the celebrated author Ralph Waldo Emerson once did.

No matter how we look at it: inspiration is an energy. It comes swiftly and leaves us feeling euphoric or changed somehow. But the reality is inspiration is a difficult concept to explain and understand. The more we inch closer to revealing its secrets, the more uncertain we become about what we actually understand about it—and our brains. So we fallback to the belief that inspiration comes entirely from an external source of some kind. Muse, god, spirit, poet, or something else.

And really this belief, to think of inspiration as something outside ourselves, is almost instinctual. We aren’t necessarily taught to notice when we’re lacking in some area (though it may have been pointed out for a select few of us when we were younger), we simply detect and observe when someone has something we don’t: an idea, a trait, knowledge, intelligence, talents, or something else. And when we accomplish something we didn’t think we could, or when we become exposed to a thought or idea we hadn’t realized before, we feel as though that influence was something entirely outside ourselves. I am not capable of naturally doing something like this, we tell ourselves, so something else must have propelled me to do it.

What causes inspiration?

In their look into analyzing creativity—titled “Assessing highly‐creative ability”—researchers Rob Cowdroy of the University of Newcastle in Australia and Erik de Graaff of Delff University of Technology share the story of how black holes were first discovered and the role inspiration played in that event.

The story is short: in 1993, Stephen Hawking and Roger Penfold were able to compile research they had conducted on how black holes are generated and persist, a concept that radically changed how we once thought about the universe around us. Of the story, Cowdroy and de Graaff write:

“To cut a long story short, Penfold’s idea of black holes in the universe was entirely intuitive: it did not come directly from any conventional process of deduction or rational analysis; it came to him spontaneously and unexpectedly (he was in a pedestrian refuge waiting for a break in the traffic) and was entirely consistent with the spontaneous conceptualization at the source of many great creative works (vide Mozart’s spontaneous conceptualization of his requiem). Penfold’s concept presented an important new bridge between the General Theory of Relativity and quantum mechanics. This first stage of the discovery of black holes was therefore both a significant piece of science research and an inspired (spontaneous) concept, and therefore was creativity at the highest level in the taxonomies of creativity.”

Penfold was able to intuit a theory for proving the existence of black holes… by watching traffic go by.

It’s important to look at what happened from his point of voice. Whenever we observe states—such as being uninspired then suddenly inspired—we should look at the variables that change. In Penfold’s case what took him from being uninspired to having some idea for how black holes are formed was that observation of the traffic flow around him and realizing the pattern that emerged.

What Penfold—and Hawking—lacked up until that moment was the perspective of patterns of movement light takes. Someone else, somewhere else, could have had the same epiphany. But the same observation would not have the same impact as it did on Penfold had he not already been thinking about light, gravity, and the relationship between the two. Once that knowledge was rattling around in his skull, all it took to formalize a theory of black holes was Penfold waiting for a break in traffic.

This is not an unusual pattern.

We see examples of this same type of event occurring repeatedly in cases where someone feels inspired. Most famously: the story of Archimedes and his discovery of measuring the density of an object using bath water, in which Archimedes—upon realizing his discovery—purportedly ran out into the streets naked shouting “Eureka!”

In any case what leaves these scientists, writers, inventors, and laypeople feeling inspired is the sudden revelation of an insight or idea, previously undisclosed. The revelation comes not from some otherworldly entity, but instead simple observation: the pattern of traffic in a busy street or the way the water in a bath tub rises when you lay into it.

So yes: when we feel as though something is missing, when we feel as though inspiration comes from outside of us, that is true.

But the missing thing isn’t necessarily a divine gift or an unusually high IQ; the missing thing is typically knowledge, observation, some data point. Even some notable Romans—Persius, Ovid, and Propertius—believed inspiration was not delivered by any type of external muse, but rather a well developed process which could invoke inspiration.

In art we often say that one style inspired another, one artist inspired the work of another. What does that mean in this context? It means the artist was able to connect what they knew (painting) with what they didn’t (creating more vibrant art, for example). They were inspired by being exposed to information—a perspective, a way of creating—they may not have considered before.

In other words: what we lack is not necessarily the abilities others have, the intelligence they’ve been born with, nor the blessing of some otherworldly power. What we lack more often than not is simply knowledge.

How do we get inspired?

If knowledge is all that keeps us from being uninspired—stuck on a problem or in a process—and inspired, the way to “get” inspired becomes much more straight-forward.

What caused Einstein to write his theory of relativity, or Picasso to paint the Girl Before A Mirror, or Steve Jobs and Woz to come up with the idea for Apple computer, is that they knew something you and I didn’t. They uncovered a bit of knowledge, or insight, that others overlooked or weren’t looking for in the first place. Or they experienced something only they could, having been in the “right place at the right time.”

Viewed under this new light, inspiration is not as random as you or I might think. Before inspiration can occur we must be prepared for it.

Looking at a work of art without understanding the nuances of the form, or what it represents, can leave you feeling less than inspired. Many people who were on the verge of a discovery failed to see it because they were focused on something else. The mathematical inventions of history could not have been predicted—at least synthesized so well—by a person who didn’t first understand the basics of math.

We cannot be inspired by that which has no relation to us. If the inspiration has nowhere to “stick” in our minds, it doesn’t become inspiration; it simply becomes trash art, or just another experience, or something we fail to understand.

“Insights shift us toward a new story, a new set of beliefs that are more accurate, more comprehensive, and more useful.”

That’s a quote from Gary Klein in his stellar book Seeing What Others Don’t.

When we have some foundational knowledge or experience—when we can look at the inspirational source and understand it in some capacity—we make room for what it presents and can then be “inspired.”

This is strikingly true for even the more emotional side of inspiration. When we look out at a beautiful sunset and feel that “inspired” feeling, the connection we’re getting is that of how mundane the rest of the day is compared to that limited-time sunset.

But, again, more often than not we don’t embrace this notion. We instead accept that inspiration is an event entirely outside our control. And while it’s true we don’t have to prepare to be inspired: if we want to be inspired more often in our lives what we must do is prepare.

Steve Jobs—love him or hate him—understood this point. He famously quipped on it by saying:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things.”

All good and well, what do we actually do about it? If we want to get more inspiration in our life, how do we go about it?

In their book Creative Confidence, Tom Kelly and David Kelly give us a path forward:

“Interact with experts, immerse yourself in unfamiliar environments, and role-play scenarios. Inspiration is fueled by a deliberate, planned course of action.”

The thing is this: in order for inspiration to be truly “inspiring”—to compel us to act or move or feel deeply—it can’t be spoon fed to us. When we’re told the solution to a problem the process of discovery is lost. Nobody wants to solve an already completed puzzle. Or consider reading. Part of what makes a book so tantalizing is the fact we don’t know or understand the words on all of its pages until we’ve read it ourselves. The same is true for inspiration.

We have to put in the work: burying ourselves in the landscape, ruminating on the problem, writing or doodling or otherwise investing in the up-front work, then creating a plan to expose us to things that will help bridge the gap between what we know and what we don’t know. And often these inspirations will come from the least likely places. Our problems at work might be resolved by playing tinker toys with a child, or our lack of feeling energized may be resolved by exposing ourselves to those with lazier habits than we have. We won’t know until we build the foundational part of knowledge or perspective, then engage in new and different ways with the world around us.

Ultimately inspiration is outside of our control. But we can do things to invite it. In-fact: we should seek to do and think and act in ways that invite inspiration, not just wait around for it to come to us.



Lessons on creativity from my parents

Growing up, I don’t think there was anything my parents did—or didn’t do—to impact my creativity. At-least not directly.

In-fact: “creativity” was an unfamiliar word to me until I got my first job! I hadn’t really heard people reference creativity until I was working alongside self-described “creatives” in the design industry.

But there were elements of my childhood that have absolutely impacted my perception of creativity, and my ability to think creatively.

Isn’t it funny how we’re tremendously impacted by things in our lives we don’t realize until much, much further down the line?

My father was a surgeon.

Meticulous with his hands, analytical in how he processed problems and situations. It wasn’t surprising for me to come home from school and find my father in the driveway with the family car in pieces. He’d take it apart by hand and lay all the parts out around him as he worked.

Every screw, plastic cap, and metal panel laid on the concrete driveway. My father’s hands would be covered in grease and glue, cuts and scrapes. He’d have sweat on his brow and dirt all over his jeans.

When asked what he was doing there in the driveway, he’d explain there was a squeaking sound when the window was being rolled down, or that the radiator hose was old and leaking, or something else he was investigating or trying to repair. Rather than taking the car into a professional mechanic my father figured he’d save a few dollars and do the work himself.

Everything is easier once you start,”he’d tell me. “Once you start taking something apart it’s easier to see how it all comes together.”

Or, to use another quote from a source I am not quite sure the source of:

Don’t let your fear of breaking things keep you from trying new experiments, that’s how you learn about the real world.

Just because we might not know how a car works doesn’t mean we’re incapable of repairing it ourselves when something breaks. The fear we face at the outset is often just an acknowledgement that we’re on the bridge between not knowing something and knowing it.

My father’s example showed me that most complex things are really comprised of many small, simple things. If I ever wanted to better understand something all I needed to do was really look at all of its parts.

My mother was a school teacher.

She understood the importance of education, of building knowledge and expanding our perspectives of the world around us.

When my parents divorced my mother found creative ways to keep her children entertained. She didn’t have much in the way of money, but she did have exercises and games she could give to me and my brothers and sisters.

I remember cupboards full of colored paper in the home: all different shapes, sizes, and colors. We couldn’t afford every new toy or form of entertainment, but we could afford paper and glue.

My mother taught me that imagination can do a lot, much more than nearly any other part of our brain’s processes. To quote Albert Einstein:

Imaginationis more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imaginationembraces the entire world”

A secondary part of what I learned from my mother was making due with what you’ve got. If we didn’t have money to buy art supplies, we’d whiteout an older work of art. Or use a brown paper bag, or paper plate, or old clothes, as the canvas.

I learned I should never feel limited by what I don’t know or what I don’t have. Instead I can get crafty by looking at the world around me and what I do know or do have in order to do more.

Growing up, I never really thought about these lessons.

But as I reached adulthood and began finding my own way in the world I began to understand just how impactful these lessons from my parents were.

Creativity requires us to jump into unknown situations: to uncover new and novel ideas. It requires us to be open to possibilities and embrace the fact we simply don’t know everything there is to know. But it also requires us to try anyway: to paint when we don’t know how, to write when we might be wrong, to tinker and experiment and press forward even when we feel limited.



Creativity often comes from discomfort

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Creativity comes to those who want or need it. Those who are hungry for change, something different, a shake up.

Comfort is debilitating when it comes to creative thinking. The act of creativity thrives in moments of tension, when there is struggle there is an opening for creativity.

You cannot merely will creativity. You cannot "try harder" to cause it to occur. It requires a gap, some type of discomfort, or another type of provocation to occur.

Consider your appetite for food. It’s hard to see the appeal of food when you’ve just eaten a large meal. No matter how much you might enjoy food, it can be hard to stomach another bite after you’ve over indulged. The appeal of a really good meal is partially in the hunger for it. The same is true of creativity.

If you don’t see a need to break from routine or change your thinking, the notion of creativity will not only seem unappealing, it will become difficult to realize. Why question the status quo if it’s giving you what you want? Why push boundaries if their confines are comfortable? Even if you don’t know things could be better, it’s easy to convince yourself good enough is... well, good enough.

It’s those who feel an itch to change things in their life, those who are unsatisfied with their work or processes or other aspects of life are more likely to experience a creative breakthrough. The ones who dare to look out and ask: “What if this were different?” are the ones who often make it so.

We call this perspective “openness to new experiences” and it’s one of the primary attributes that determine whether or not someone is creative. Associate director of the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas, Magdalena G. Grohman believes openness to experiences is the single most defining trait that makes creative success possible.

This helps explain why boredom is so valuable to creativity: it instigates exploration, it creates an opening for novelty. It also explains why those who travel or read diverse content and expose themselves to different ways of thinking are the ones who tend to produce more creative ideas and work.

Perhaps one reason some of the most creative artists and musicians in history are also the most troubled: the struggle they encounter in life is what pushes them to try new and different things.

If you want to be more creative, embrace the uncomfortable feeling brought about by peeking outside your routine and asking: “What else is out there?”