Creativity is such a powerful tool, yet it’s an untapped resource by so many, because they just don’t know how to develop it. Keep reading to learn how to be more creative.
Creativity is valuable. It’s the spark behind most great inventions. Creative thought has lead to our favorite works of art, film, television, literature, poetry, and photography. It can even be argued that creativity is the reason we aren’t all still hunters and gatherers, running around with fig leaves to cover ourselves.
Creativity pays. In a 2016 study performed by Adobe, those who identified as “creatives” made 17% more than “non-creatives.”
Creativity is positive. In the same study by Adobe, they found that businesses who promote creativity have happier employees.
But it’s a confusing and vastly misunderstood topic. Most people think it’s a gift. Because of this preconceived notion, many people live most of their lives on the sidelines of creativity, leaving it to those who are gifted.
Is it Possible to Become More Creative?
And perhaps creativity is a gift to a degree, but what if I told you it was less a gift, and more of a skillset. What if I told you that even the most successful “creatives” of all time couldn’t simply sit down and produce brilliance.
Take it from Mozart. He once wrote to a friend,
“People err who think my art comes easily to me. I astute you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.”
A few years back, The London Philharmonic Orchestra chose the 50 greatest symphonies of all time. Mozart had 5 pieces make the cut, but guess how many pieces he produced in his lifetime?
Over 600! He logged the time and put forth the effort.
Whatever you think of Mozart’s gifting and God-given talent, his discipline and work ethic were just as prominent.
So despite all of your preconceived notions, you can become more creative. How?
Creativity Can Be Learned
There’s an often cited study by George Land that makes the case that creativity may be something adults un-learn over time.
In 1968, George Land tested the divergent thinking of 1,600 children ranging from three to five years old. He tested the same children at age 10 and 15. He also gave the same test to 280,000 adults. His results:
- 5 year olds scored on average 98%
- 10 year olds scored on average 30%
- 15 year olds scored on average 12%
- Adults scored on average 2%
His conclusion was that we tend to lose our ability to think creatively over time.
In other words, we learn non-creative thinking as we age.
If this is possible, surely the reverse is as well. We are able to reverse the trend, to return to the creative and divergent thinking in which our childlike minds thrived. But how?
How to Develop Creativity
There are hundreds of definitions for creativity, but for the sake of this post, let’s assume we’re referring to creativity as the ability to generate a novel and useful idea. This idea might be of a new business or a work of art.
In my opinion, there are a handful of pillars when it comes to creativity. Focusing on and managing these pillars is the key to fostering and channeling creative thought:
- Discipline + Repetition
Create Creative Space
You must create space to allow creative thought in your brain. If your brain is constantly full of a billion ideas, to-do’s, and stressors, it’s tough to generate an original thought. How can you carve out space to be creative?
- Jot everything down: don’t leave a single thought floating around in there. David Allen says, “The brain is meant for creating ideas, not storing them.” So get your ideas out. Whether into a notebook, a calendar, or a productivity app, free up space in your brain.
- Manage your calendar: you not only need brain space, you need physical space. It’s true that sometimes the best ideas come when your overloaded and stressed, but it’s more likely your best idea will come to a well-rested mind and body. Why didn’t mankind progress sooner? No one had a spare second. From dawn until dusk we were surviving. So carve out time, rest well, and don’t overwhelm yourself.
- Handle 1-3 projects at a time: some thrive on working on many things at once, but more than three and your quality will start to suffer. Your brain simply can’t be moving four or five things forward at the same time. Manage where your thought is going at any given time. If you lay down at night and your brain is in five entirely different places, it’s time to prune and cut something out.
Manage Your Inspiration
There are more ideas generated in the 21st century than ever before. There are new apps, books, and businesses every single day. Why is this?
I’m convinced it has to do with an overwhelming amount of stimuli. Sure, the digital age has terrible consequences, but has also led to a TON of inspiration.
Whatever it is that interests you, right this very moment you can pick up a book, download a podcast, or find a website dedicated to it.
A key to creativity is managing your inspiration stimuli – because what goes in comes out. If you take in remarkable and relevant stimuli, remarkable and relevant ideas come out. On the other hand, if you take in stale and irrelevant stimuli, unhelpful and irrelevant ideas come out.
- Plan your intake: every week, month, or quarter, plan what you want to absorb. Create a list of books to read. Curate a playlist of podcasts you want to listen to. Plan an trip to a place that inspires you. Pick out stimuli that are relevant to the problems you’re trying to solve or the project you’re trying to move forward.
- Know your heroes: gain inspiration from those you look up to. Dig into their work. Tease out their motivations and routines. Take it even one step further and do the same for the people who inspired them.
- Switch it up: only ever read the same author within the same genre? Only listen to the same kind of music? Be intentional about switching things up on occasion. Take a different route to work, listen to a podcast on a random (but interesting) subject. You’ll be surprised where creative inspiration might be waiting for you.
Cultivate Discipline + Repetition
But discipline is for doctors, not creatives – right? Wrong-o. We mentioned earlier how much work Mozart put into his craft, and how many pieces he composed. How about Picasso – think his masterpieces are the only works he produced?
Picasso created 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, and 12,000 drawings in his lifetime.
There’s a popular story about Picasso sitting in a cafe, doodling on a napkin. An admirer walked up and asked to purchase the sketch. They asked for how much he would sell it. “$2,000,” he replied. “But you sketched that in 2 minutes!” the admirer shouted. “No,” Picasso says, “It took me 40 years.”
Discipline and repetition over the course of 40 years lead to the ability to produce brilliant work in a moment’s notice.
- Set quantitative goals: If you write, aim to write x number of words a day. If you draw, aim to spend 4 hours a weekend drawing.
- Hold yourself accountable: open yourself up to others. Share your goals with friends and family. Let others in on your creative ambitions.
- Produce a ton of work: Adam Grant refers to this as “Kissing a lot of frogs” in his book Originals. If you produce a high volume of work, some of it is bound to be good. And if you kiss a lot of frogs, one is bound to be a prince.
Practice Keeping an Open Mind
A key tenant of creativity is divergent thinking: the ability to take a different train of thought than others in order to produce the ideas and solutions others can’t.
Adam Grant writes in Originals about a study on thinking differently. An economist named Michael Housman was trying to figure out why some customer service agents stayed in their jobs longer than others. He gathered a massive amount of data, and one correlation stuck out to him:
Employees who used Firefox or Chrome browsers remained at their jobs longer, boasted better performance, and missed less work days. What did those who used Firefox and Chrome have in common?
And then it hit him: all of these customer service agents were issued PC’s, which had Internet Explorer downloaded by default. In order to use Firefox and Chrome, one had to take the initiative to change their browser.
They were willing to think differently and open to finding faults in the default.
Just because we’ve always done something one way doesn’t mean it’s the best way.
Open-mindedness is a muscle you must train and flex regularly.
- Practice curiosity: when you are confronted by new concepts and ideas, dig into them. Allow yourself to have a sense of wonder again. Ask why.
- Ask lots of questions: along the same lines, get good at asking questions. Not in a pessimistic sort-of-way, but in a “I wonder if there’s a better way to do this,” kind of way.
- Research originals: find people who have produced novel and brilliant ideas in their lifetimes and read their biographies. How did they think? How did they reason? Take note.
We’ve just covered what is a relatively programmatic way to manage and nurture your creative production. But what if you just want a short term burst of creative thought? What can you do right now to channel creativity without taking a class or creating a six month plan?
21 Easy Ways to Spark Creativity
- Take a trip to your local library
- Schedule lunch with the most original person you know
- Create a playlist of songs you wouldn’t normally listen to
- Plan a trip to a city you’ve never been
- Take a different route to work tomorrow
- Write down your 5 very best ideas
- Tell someone about your best idea
- Go to a local museum or zoo
- Read the biography of one of your favorite artists, writers, or poets
- Research a topic you’ve never spent time on
- Spend some time browsing dribbble.com or behance.com
- Write down your biggest questions about life
- Start asking those questions of friends and family
- Turn your phone off for a day or weekend
- Journal on a writing prompt
- Tell someone a story (make it up as you go)
- Work with your hands
- Light a candle or diffuse some essential oils
- Organize a game with friends
- Go on a walk
- Have a drink (make it wine)