Creative ideas come from how we look at the world

Roll-out table designed by  Marcus Voraa .

Roll-out table designed by Marcus Voraa.

Creative ideas are all around us, all the time. Uncovering them is often a matter of how we’re looking at things and less of where we’re looking.

And yet when we’re feeling uncreative or stuck it’s often helpful to get away from the work: to get up and go for a walk, or do a chore, or otherwise change scenery.

Why is stepping away from the work so helpful for invoking new ways of looking at or thinking about it?

There’s a bit of science behind why walking helps spark creativity. And we know that incubation—giving ourselves time to let ideas bubble up subconsciously—is a crucial step to the creative process. But what is it exactly about stepping away from the work that makes creativity more likely?

As with all things, the longer we look at them or the more we inundate ourselves with the task, the more challenging it is to see it differently. We are creatures that pride ourselves on optimization, and things like familiarity, routine, and processes help optimize our lives and work for efficiency over novelty.

When we try to think creatively about something we’ve been thinking about—or something we already know some of—it’s difficult to think any differently about it. It’s extremely challenging to literally see things any other way. And the more familiar we are with something, the more difficult it is to think creatively about it.

This familiarity effect is underlined when amateurs are introduced to a professional playing field: new golfers tend to outperform experienced ones.

Some of the most daring discoveries have come as a result of novices playing in an expert arena; including many of the most important inventions and innovations in history. Barcodes, television, sticky notes, ice blocks, the electric motor, the telegraph, and many more inventions or discoveries were made possible thanks to amateurs who had stumbled into their arena with fresh eyes.

While professionals and experts are constantly surrounded by their work (and the nuances of how that work comes together) they’re often blinded by potential new discoveries and ideas.

The same is true of any idea really: ideas are all around us, all the time, but we’re often too focused or too distracted by what we think we know (and how we know it) to see these creative possibilities.

No matter where you are or what you're doing, the world around you is filled with insights and ideas that can creatively inspire and motivate you. When you realize this, you never have to feel creatively stuck again.

To capitalize on these ideas we need not change what we’re looking at, but how we look at it.

Things like going for a walk, trying a new hobby, or otherwise breaking up our thinking allows us to re-consider what we think we know. Rather than looking at things the same way, we can quickly shift to a different lens of thinking; one which might uncover new and valuable ideas about familiar items or subjects.

Jumping back-and-forth between task is a great way to unlock new ways of thinking or seeing. Einstein was famous for his diverse interests, as was Edison, and—more recently—Elon Musk exemplifies this approach to tackling creative problems.

But you don’t have to jump between tasks to invoke creativity. You can also dig into anything around you, here and now, for inspiration.

Start by observing items you’re working with—the tools, the expected output, the environment—then really look at it. Consider what it’s made of (or not made of), its history, its purpose. You can expand on any of these things—by asking more questions or by repeating questions at each step—to go deeper into new ways of thinking about the thing.

Consider something as plain as a table. The purpose of any table is straight-forward enough: to hold things. But what about specialized tables? Poker or pool tables, picnic and the tables you’d be seated at in a fine-dining restaurant. The table built for a modern office worker might have plugs and power adapters built in, whereas the traditional family dinner table will need to be larger, sturdy, and power-less.

DUOO minimalist writing desk, via  Gessato .

DUOO minimalist writing desk, via Gessato.


Then there's the history of any table. How was it made: by machine or by hand? Who made the table and where did they learn to do that? What’s their history? Is there a town of table-makers somewhere? How does the factory where tables are made smell? How does that smell carry over to the tables around us at home or work? How are these tables designed, before they are made? Where was the wood or metal or plastic or concrete sourced from for the table?

Screen Shot 2019-01-28 at 7.00.59 PM.png

What if the table meant to hold our computers and cups of coffee was designed to instead hold thousands of pounds of materials, how might that affect how it looks and functions? What if a table needed to expand or shrink depending on how many people will be using it? What if your table could transform into a shelf when not in use? What if the table was modular, or entirely a touch screen, or embedded with floral smells or haptic feedback mechanisms?

When we start to see a table as more than just something “to hold things” we begin to unlock new and possibly provoking ideas. These once overly-familiar objects or projects begin to take on new characteristics and, inevitably, expose us to new ways of thinking.

And if none of the digging and question asking works, there’s always the option of going for a walk to shake up how you’re thinking about things.



How does the idea make you feel?

Screen Shot 2019-01-13 at 5.07.34 PM.png

When we want to validate our ideas the most obvious way is to ask someone else what they think of the idea.

“Is this a good idea or not?”

But thinking and feeling are two distinctive things, and each represents a different interpretation of what we experience.

Love, for example, is an often illogical or irrational feeling. Then it’s difficult to feel anything about an Excel spreadsheet (unless you’re a math nerd). Yet each of these things serves a distinct purpose and provides us with meaningful experiences or information. Similarly: ideas can be illogical or feeling-less. Creative ideas are usually fall into the former category: illogical, especially when first encountered.

When we ask someone what they think about our ideas, we’re asking them to logically look at the concept and tell us whether or not they can comprehend it. But the problem with many creative ideas—those which are truly novel and valuable—is they’re not the type of thing you can immediately, logically, wrap your head around. They’re often confusing, daunting, or seemingly crazy at first. History has given us ample examples of thinkers who were “ahead of their time.”

Imagine trying to evaluate the concept of an elevator, or tablet computer, or car, from a person from the 1800s. They wouldn’t have any basis from which to understand what you’re even talking about, let alone critique the idea well. Similarly, you’d be hard-pressed to get someone’s interpretation of Moby Dick if they had never read anything like it before, or of Jackson Pollock if they had never seen the style (and knew nothing of the artist).

When asking someone else what they think of our idea, we may be asking them to respond to what they don’t understand. How could they? If it was obvious, they would have thought of the idea.

Instead, we should seek to not validate our ideas by asking “What do you think about this?” or “Do you think this is a good idea?” Rather, we should ask how the idea makes someone feel.

Feelings can often help us better understand where gaps in our ideas might be, or what cognitive bridges we’ll need to build when sharing our ideas. Feelings are a far better guiding light when it comes to building new concepts than more logical thought processes. If the person we’re interacting with feels confused, overwhelmed, or frustrated by the idea, that’s a good sign that we need to work to simplify the concept, or make it easier to relate to another, existing, idea. If the feedback we get is that the idea excites the other person, or makes them feel optimistic, or hopeful, or another positive feeling, that’s a good indicator we may be onto something worth pursuing further.

The next time you want to validate whether or not your creative idea is worthwhile: ask your audience how the idea makes them feel, not whether they think it’s good or bad.

Doing so will get you closer to the feedback you need to evolve the idea, not merely scrap it or call it a success.



How to properly incubate your ideas

Photo by  Hutomo Abrianto  on  Unsplash .

I’ve long been a proponent for action as a crucial part of the creative process.

Action, I’ve often exclaimed, is a major trait which sets the daydreamer apart from the inventor, or the would-be artist from the gallery-featured savant. Ideas are plentiful and fairly easy to come by. You often don’t need much to stumble on a valuable or unique idea; sometimes you do. What’s vastly more difficult than having ideas or daydreaming about possibilities is doing something with the ideas you do have. You can’t simply sit around and expect your ideas to evolve into successes on their own. You can’t really know the value of an idea until you do something with it (to validate it or prove it wrong).

Today I still believe in the importance of action when it comes to creative ideas. If you want to be recognized (or even simply acknowledged) as a creative individual, you have to do something with the ideas you have. Ideas are worthless until we get them out of our heads to see what they can do.

But there’s another component to creativity that requires us to explicitly not act: incubation.

Incubation is a subconscious stage within the creative process, one of four to five total stages, depending on who you talk to. According to the renown creative theorist and psychologist Graham Wallas, incubation plays a crucial role in the first part of the process of creative thought. His model states that the four stages are, in order: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification. For incubation, work we immerse ourselves in is moved to the recesses of our mind’s processing. Wikipedia describes incubation as “a process of unconscious recombination of thought elements that were stimulated through conscious work at one point in time, resulting in novel ideas at some later point in time.”

On the outside, incubation appears to be a creative stage in which nothing happens. Because of this, incubation is often shunned or looked down on as laziness. The reality is far from the truth: the incubation stage of creativity is often critical to a preferable outcome.

Consider that the notion of incubation has been studied in-depth as part of scientific research and academic labs since the 1920s. Researchers test the role of incubation by often splitting research participants into two groups: one which receives a short break between creative tests or tasks, and another group which gets no such break.

Repeatedly studies have shown that a short break often results in more creative output; far more creative than if you do nothing at all or focus on daunting tasks. Getting time away from a problem or project, it turns out, often enables the subconscious brain to work on that project free of conscious pressures.

But incubation is a tricky thing. You can’t, for example, expect ideas to incubate if you distract yourself with cognitively heavy or difficult tasks. Nor will you end up with creative insights if you distract yourself with mind-numbing entertainment.

To properly let ideas incubate, you must participate in lightweight tasks which keep your mind engaged but not overwhelmed. This point has been demonstrated in many studies, including one by researchers from the University of California Santa Barbra and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive Brain Sciences. In the study—titled Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation—researchers note that when participants were instructed to complete a creative task they performed better if they were given a lightweight, simple task after being shown the creative task but before attempting to complete it. Those who were given a simple task between the work performed better than not only those who had to work on an arduous challenge, but also those who merely rested.

The researchers summarize their findings:

“The study reported here demonstrated that taking a break involving an undemanding task improved performance on a classic creativity task far more than did taking a break involving a demanding task, resting, or taking no break. Notably, this improvement was observed only for repeated-exposure problems, which demonstrates that it resulted from an incubation process rather than a general increase in creative problem solving.”

That is to say: the two conditions that yield the most creative results—at least for participants in the study—are first, being primed on the task at hand (immersion in the problem or work-to-be-done) and second, distance from the work or problem with a lightweight task, such as doing the dishes (or similar chores), going for a walk, reading a book, planning an outfit for the next day, making coffee, or journaling. Really anything that’s going to challenge your mind without putting too much pressure on it is what will provide the most value for incubation.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all creative ideas come from brute force (or the just as misleading myth that creative ideas come from “nowhere”), but we cannot overlook the value incubation plays on the process. In reality the best ideas come from being primed or deeply embedded in a space, task, or problem, followed by a short break that challenges the mind in a simple way before attempting to complete the task.

If you want to incubate your ideas: give yourself the time to step away from the task you need to add creativity to. You may find that when you come back to the task, you’re more capable of thinking differently about it than you were before. All because your mind has been primed to do the work, then given the space and energy to subconsciously “connect the dots” needed to do the work.

In this way, creativity is less the flipping of a light switch and more the painting of a picture. Slow and deliberate, with a lot more work happening beneath the layers we see at the end of the work.



Overcoming the factors that often keep us from being creative

Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 7.20.21 PM.png

Ultimately we are the thing which keeps us from being creative. We, ourselves, are only to blame.

Though excuses are plentiful, creativity by nature asks us to push past or through any excuse we may come up with. We overcome these excuses by maneuvering around constraints, ignoring status quo, or destroying expectations and even core beliefs.

This all makes sense, as the source of creativity in any event is always our own mind. That’s where we process everything in and around us, the world outside our minds exists, but it’s only by being processed within our brains that we come to understand and comprehend it (or don’t). Everything occurs within the mind, as David Eagleman so elegantly writes in his book Incognito:

”Your brain is encased in absolute blackness in the vault of your skull. It doesn't see anything. All it knows are these little signals, and nothing else. And yet you perceive the world in all shades of brightness and colors. Your brain is in the dark but your mind constructs light.

Because everything we think and believe and process takes place within our minds, the barriers or factors which inhibit our creativity are all within our minds too.

Our existing knowledge and experience, our ability to question and seek answers or pursue opportunity, our energy and taste for risk, our relationship to fear and doubt, all play a part in our ability to think creatively and have worthwhile ideas. Each exists in the form of bodily networks or systems, behaviors, habits, and beliefs.

When we feel stuck or hindered what we’re really feeling is uncertainty, fear, doubt, confusion, or simply an encounter with something we do not know how to move around (it’s worth noting that just because we can’t see a way around an obstacle does not mean there isn’t a way around it).

Undoubtedly there are factors outside ourselves that play a part in our ability to think creatively too, through their influence and affect on us. As an example: if you grew up in an environment which discouraged risk taking, question asking, or being open to change and differences, you’re much less likely to seek those things out as you age and mature. It just won’t be part of your “nature.”

Or if you spend all of your time and energy on familiar routines or efforts which benefit from the feelings of comfort and safety but detract from the hints which might otherwise motivate or inspire you, you’re unlikely to begin any pursuit of meaningful ideas. You’ll be fixated on what you know and what feels comfortable, less inclined to pursue even slightly risky endeavors; this despite the fact that a slight change to behavior or routine might yield hugely impactful insights to your perception of the world or the work you do.

As you can see, there are certainly factors outside ourselves which inhibit or otherwise influence our creativity. If we do not surround ourselves with inspiration or motivation—examples of the creative process in action—we may never feel comfortable or knowledgeable enough to do those things too. If you never see someone think creatively, it’s hard to know how to do it yourself. If you never learn about something that’s possible, you may not think of it at all (let alone whether it’s impossible or not).

Still, in the end, it all—the inspiration and inhibition—take place within our minds. We are the central conductor with which the mind plays. And when it comes to creativity we are setting our own limits; no one else and nothing else can prevent us from “thinking differently” (with perhaps the exception of mental disability or disease).

All we need in order to embark on a creative pursuit is exactly that: think differently. Think in different terms, think of different tools, different modes of functioning, of seeing the world. And there are thousands of ways we can do this in any situation. (If you’re really stuck, I wrote a book filled with 150 challenges for thinking differently.)

you-are-the-thing.png

So, if this is all true, why do we not act creatively in everything we do? Why do we struggle to generate truly creative ideas when we need or want them most? Why aren’t we all creative, all the time?

The reality is that creativity isn’t always necessary, the process of thinking creatively will not always yield something worthwhile in a moment, and it’s often much easier to stick with what we know and how we’ve always thought than it is to try something differently.

Creativity requires energy and even then does not ensure an energetic return on investment. It took Edison and his team more than 1,000 iterations to find the perfect filament for the lightbulb. Henry Ford famously failed numerous times in his attempt to manufacture a car. Apple ended up building and selling a beautifully contained computer that consistently cracked and ultimately failed.

Then there’s the greatest factor which keeps us from pursuing creativity: fear. Fear of rejection, of embarrassment, or failure. Fear can prevent us from having being creatively driven, from even trying to think differently or to take a risk or to be open to experiences. Nobody wants to fail or to make mistakes, because those things hurt and can damage (temporarily or permanently) or reputation or ego. And because fear is such an ingrained part of human nature it’s often the most common blocker for exploring a new idea or pursuing a unique opportunity.

When I first started writing about creativity here on Creative Something (more than 11 years ago now!) I would often be asked to help someone whose boss or manager or peer wasn’t “allowing” them to be creative. I’d be told: “I want to do something creative but this other person isn’t letting me, they shut down every idea I have and I’m afraid if I try anything I’ll lose my job.” Or someone would email me saying: “I want to be creative at school but I don’t have anyway to express myself how I want to!”

My response to those types of messages comes down to what I started this post by stating: the only thing stopping you from being creative is you.

Someone told you that you couldn’t do a certain thing? So what, use that creative brain of yours and come up with an alternate plan. Unsure of how to move an idea forward? Try something, anything, and if that doesn’t work try something completely different. Not sure how to do something? Talk to others, read a unique book, break routine and go somewhere new to be inspired.

Nobody is stopping you from being creative but yourself.