Written by Lifebook Team Member, John Vieceli
“We are creating our lives every day, and yet we don’t think of it as being “creative” in the traditional sense. However, if you don’t look at your life as a creative act, then you’re not going to view yourself as someone who needs to invent it in a really thoughtful and interesting way. I think it is extremely important that people believe they have the power to creatively reinvent the world and their lives.
— Dr. Seelig’s TEDxStanford talk: A Crash Course in Creativity
People always say to me, “You are so creative. I wish I were that creative.” It makes me cringe when I hear those words because I believe that everyone is creative. We have to keep in mind that creativity is not the same as being artistic. These are often confused. Creativity is nothing more than a thinking process. It is the same thinking process we all used in the creation of our Lifebooks, so if you have a Lifebook, you ARE creative.
When people ask me how they can be more creative, I usually break the answer into two parts: skills and process. Before I go any further, I want to emphasize that you do not become more creative. You have to choose to be more creative. It takes conscious effort. Creativity is all about mindset and effort. If you do not have the desire to be creative, you will not be. If you do not believe you are creative, you won’t be.
Okay, you have made the choice to be more creative. In part 1, I am going to discuss the essential skills you’ll need to cultivate.
5 Essential Skills to Cultivate Your Creativity
1. Capture and Collect
You need to pay attention to ideas and then have a way to capture ideas as they occur to you. You never know when the next great idea will hit you. I capture everything because I have no idea when or how I will use these ideas in the future. It’s been my experience that even the craziest idea can sometimes be quite valuable later. Another reason for capturing is I know once the idea disappears it is almost impossible to retrieve it. In the past, I would carry a notebook and a pen everywhere I went but today I use my Samsung Note 3 and Evernote exclusively. I can capture pictures and articles. I often create audio notes to myself if I’m trying to think through a problem. I tag everything I save and then use the search feature within Evernote. Evernote has optical character recognition, so images are searchable as well.
2. See The Connections
You’ve heard the phrase, “there are no new ideas just combinations of old ones.” Ideas emerge from the interconnection of things. New information your brain takes in can be juxtaposed or contrasted with the information and experiences you already have. By finding new sequences or making new connections can turn out to be interesting and valuable. Steve Jobs said, “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. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
Jobs is correct, having diverse experiences are crucial when it comes to “seeing the connections.” However, it’s not just about the experience itself. Scott Barry Kaufman, the scientific director of the Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, co-authored a book called, “Wired to Create.” He writes, “My data so far suggests ‘openness to experience’ is the number one thing to cultivate for both personal, meaningful creativity and world changing creativity. What that means is always challenging yourself beyond your comfort zone, constantly questioning assumptions, being intellectually curious, and appreciating beauty. Personal growth is intimately tied to openness to experience.”
Curiosity is a great way to discover connections. I read to my son Wyatt every night. His go-to book is Curious George. Every story starts out, “This is George. He is very curious.” Wyatt stops me every time and asks, “Daddy what is curious?” I stopped giving him the definition after the first 50 times he asked. I now show him how to be curious.
Curious for me takes many forms. If I am driving someplace I try to take a different route. Sure there are times I get lost, and the 15-minute trip takes me an hour, but I’ve seen the most incredible sunsets, found the best dive restaurants and discovered hidden running paths.
I’ve also found travel to be the best way to open yourself to experiences. There is nothing more challenging than going to a foreign country and immersing yourself in the culture.
3. Expand Your Circle
The more interesting and diverse your knowledge, the more interesting and potentially valuable the interconnections that can occur.
Here’s a question:
Imagine two rooms. Your goal is to create a unique piece of art.
The first room has a canvas and acrylic paint.
The second room has a canvas, acrylic paint, watercolors, oils, clay, charcoal, drawing paper, brushes, crayons, colored pencils, wood, metal, and glue.
Which room do you select?
I think the obvious choice is the second room because you have more tools to work with.
Your mind is at its creative best when it has more tools to work with. The tools in your mind are a combination of memories, everything you have ever learned, every moment of every experience.
I remember in my first job out of college, I was asked to develop concepts for a large corporation specializing in plant genetics. After several days of brainstorming, I didn’t have anything that I thought solved the communication problem. The creative director asked to see my concepts. After presenting my loose ideas, I admitted I was struggling. He gave me some advice that I use to this day. He said, “When you are having a hard time coming up with ideas often its because you don’t have enough information. In this case, I needed to go back and do a little more research on genetics.
4. Get Comfortable With Failure
Christoph, the famous sculptor who is famous for wrapping structures says, “Failure is a critical mechanism in creativity – the less afraid we are of it, the more we can learn from it.”
Learning to fail is the most essential skill of the four, and I think the reason why people never fully flex their creative muscles. In college, you learn failure through design critiques. For example, after working for a week on a problem, you would have to hang your work on the wall for all to see and comment. Some teachers would verbally humiliate students. Some teachers would just rip work off the wall and throw it on the floor without saying a word. The process is intimidating, but you learn two things. First, you quickly see how well your ideas stack up against the rest of the class, and secondly, you learn that you are not your work and that the critique is about learning how to improve your idea.
I look at failure as part of my design process. I cannot get to that great idea without generating awful ideas and a lot of them. Stephan Sagmeister, a famous graphic designer said, “It is crucial to embrace failure and to do a lot of stuff — as much stuff as possible — with as little fear as possible. It’s much, much better to wind up with a lot of crap having tried it than to overthink in the beginning and not do it.”
A lot of crap is exactly what I produce when I’m working on a project. When I say crap I’m talking about an incomplete idea or one that isn’t fully formed but to me, I see something that is less than perfect because Perfection is the enemy. Perfect kills the idea in the early stages.
When I’m working on ideas, I am always editing and refining. I have a dialog in my head that goes something like this…“Wait that doesn’t work. Yes, there is something there. What if I did this? I like this part. Let me explore that direction.”
I am discarding ideas, adding in elements which drive the idea in a different direction. I am very comfortable with failure because I see myself separate from my work. I see the work as a solution to a problem, and I just want to get the best solution to that problem.
Luis von Ahn, co-founder and current CEO of Duolingo, a language learning platform says, “The [common trait in] people that we have noticed are best at learning a language is that they have no trouble sounding stupid.” The same applies to the best creatives. They have no problem showing their work and having the possibility of looking stupid.
5. Find Your Creative Recipe
You have to put yourself in the best position to be creative. I read an article about 20 years ago on the topic of creativity. The author was talking about being aware of those times when you were the most creative. Write down everything about that moment. What music was playing? Where you were, even what was on your desk. The idea was to recreate that moment hoping you will get the same result. The author was on to something back then. Thanks to advances in neuroscience we now understand this a little better.
There is a recipe for putting yourself into that creative state. Here is my recipe when I need to be creative. First, I need to move. That means getting in the car, the train or on my bike. Second, I slap on the headphones, listen to music and soon after the ideas come pouring in.
So why does this work for me and how did I discover it? It has to do with your brain waves and how you perceive the world. And that is the topic of part 2.