4 Tools For Developing Creativity

Sparking Creativity

If I were to ask you if you thought you were creative, I have a strong feeling the majority of people would say no. Creativity comes in many forms; art, music, dance and performance are all types of creative expression. An individual may choose to express their personal beliefs and ideas through some form of artistic and creative pursuit to leave their mark on the world. But I also view creativity in another way too. The ability to problem solve. The ability to find new ways to understand something or new ways to overcome a challenge. Although this type of creative thinking does not lead someone down the same path as perhaps ballet dancing might, the ways in which the creativity has been developed are very much the same.

My aim is to address the fact that creativity is not an innate ability or ‘talent’ like most people would lead you to believe. But instead creativity is a skill. Refined and Practiced like any other skill and accessible to anyone who wishes to work hard to develop it. So in hindsight, if I were to ask you again if you thought you were creative, the answer should be a resounding yes! Below, I’ve outlined some of the key building blocks to developing creativity.

Input & Output

The most common misconception with creativity is that it comes from nowhere. People assume that those who think creatively create their ideas from nothing as if by magic. But the truth is you have to put something in to get something out.

The brain is a super computer like nothing else on this planet, processing around 11 million bits of information every second. The brain deliberately stores every experience you encounter for future reference and your survival (you can thank evolution for that one). If you bumped into a snake one day and narrowly missed being bitten, the brain stores that information so next time you see a snake, you can use your previous encounter as a reference to make a better informed decision and avoid it. Those of our ancestors that didn’t have this ability didn’t last very long and neither did their genetics.

Now most of the time this happens subconsciously but it’s happening to us at every moment of our lives. Once you understand this it’s easy to realise that the more you can control the inputs, the more you control the outputs. To put it bluntly - in order to be a better creator you need better references.

Feed your mind with all the information you can on the topics you wish to think more creatively on. Read the books, listen to the podcasts, study the industry leaders and learn from them - do whatever it takes to fill your mind with new ideas. Whether it be painting or entrepreneurship you wish to direct your creativity towards it’s the same process to develop the skill of creative thinking. To summarize this paragraph and iterate my point more elegantly, here is a quote from Howard Moskowitz - “to a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish”. Basically, there is no creativity without references.

Think Inside The Box

If I gave you a blank piece of paper and asked you to be as creative as you can. The odds are your mind would go blank and you would struggle to come up with anything particularly original. The reason being that you would be drowning in a sea of possibility. Too much choice is no choice so in this situation you would probably draw something cliche or fold it into a paper aeroplane or some form of origami.

However, if I were to give you a blank piece of paper and say draw anything you want and be as creative as you can but it has to be Red. Instantly your mind begins to think of objects that are red and filters through for the most original. By giving yourself a reference point and a filter your mind can instantly start building out from there.

This technique can work in any situation. Put your problems back inside the box and limit your options in order to think more creatively on demand. A famous example of this is during the Apollo 13 Space mission in 1970. The astronauts had to abandon their mission to orbit and survey the moon because two of the oxygen tanks on board their module had malfunctioned, causing the cockpit to begin filling with carbon dioxide.

The astronauts only had hours to live before the oxygen ran out. The problem they faced was that the replacement oxygen cartridges were square and the original ones were cylinders. They were literally trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Back on the ground at the John F Kennedy Space Centre the team were working to solve this problem using only the materials on the shuttle. They solved the problem in time by creating what became known as the ‘mailbox rig’ - using only a handful of instruments including duct tape, socks, and hoses from the space suits. The creative limitation was using only the materials the astronauts had available. Had the engineers been given complete freedom, they may not have designed a fix in time.    

Quantity Over Quality

One thing I find fascinating is that when we begin to study those creative geniuses we believe to have unique gifts or assume are lucky enough to be born with special talents we begin to realise that they have left us some clues (that’s the funny thing about success is that it leaves a tremendous amount of clues for those willing to go looking).

Consider Shakespeare for example, we’re all familiar with some of his classics such as Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer Nights Dream. But In the five year window in which he created what are regarded as some of his best works - Macbeth, King Lear and Othello - he also churned out what are regarded as some of his worst works - Timen Of Athens and All’s Well That Ends Well. Consistently slammed for incomplete plot and character development. In every field those who create great work typically create a vast amount of work.

When The London Philharmonic Orchestra chose the 50 greatest pieces of classical music, the list included six by Mozart, five pieces by Beethoven and three by Bach. to generate just a handful of masterpieces: Mozart composed more than 600 works before his death at 35, Beethoven produced 650 in his lifetime and Bach wrote more than 1000. Picasso left behind more than 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics and 12,000 drawings. Einstein is a classic example of a creative genius - he wrote papers on special and general relativity that transformed physics. Although, many of his 248 publications had minimal impact.

The more work you create, the more ideas you generate, the more likely you are to have good one. The world's greatest creators didn’t get there by having perfect ideas to start with, they got there by continuously developing them and continuously creating new ones until something sticks.

For Better Answers Ask Better Questions

What we choose to focus on expands. If I asked you to memorise everything in the room that’s blue and close your eyes while you repeat them back to me, but I tricked you and once your eyes were closed asked you to name everything in the room that is yellow instead, you would struggle to name more than a couple items. The simple fact is you weren’t looking for yellow items so you didn’t find them. But when you open your eyes again suddenly you will notice all the things in the room that are yellow as if they have only just appeared. The truth is they were there all the time - you just weren’t looking for them.

So in order to find answers to problems you have to go looking for them. The Bible even states ‘seek and you shall find’ so this isn’t anything new. The most powerful way to redirect your focus is with questions. The mind responds to the prompts we give it so if you want better answers start asking better questions and sure enough what you're looking for will be right in front of you, as soon as you start to focus on it.

One of my favourite questions to ask myself when facing a challenge is - “How would this look if it were easier?” Instantly I begin contemplating smarter ways to face the obstacle ahead of me and faster ways to get it done. Another one of my favourite questions when in a challenging situation is “What skills would you need to overcome this?” This is powerful because I automatically know what my strengths and weaknesses are so if it’s beyond my ability I can seek help or define the skill and start developing it myself.

In summary creativity and creative thinking are skills anyone can develop, it just takes the willingness and the right kind of deliberate practice. I doubt any of the worlds greatest creators had any significant advantage over you and I. What made them the creators they are is an insatiable hunger and unrelenting curiosity. So the question is no longer a case of if you think you are lucky enough to be born ‘creative’, the question now becomes - are you hungry enough to go after it?