“If you want a good idea, start with a lot of ideas.” Linus Pauling
A few months back I participated to a workshop organized by the women’s organization at my company. The workshop was delivered by a leadership coach and it was called You in the driver’s seat. The idea was to give participants some practical tools to feel more empowered and more in control of their own life and work. After explaining a few things about perception, cognitive distortions and how we sometimes tend to blame the environment for what happens to us, the trainer introduced a simple framework called CALL, which could help us decide how to react when faced with a difficult and emotionally charged situation: we can Complain about it, we can Act, we can Lower Expectations, or we can Leave. Depending on the situation and what we want to get out of it, any of these options could work. There is no good or bad choice. But each of them has consequences that we need to be aware of. And here comes the part that stuck with me since then: however we decide to react in any given situation, our actions will be rooted in two sources of motivation: fear (trying to avoid negative consequences) or creation (imagining positive consequences as a result of using our creative energy).
Before having this simple framework, I never thought about my actions and reactions in terms of fear and creation. But after the workshop, I started to use this filter whenever I was facing a difficult situation and I felt that nod in my stomach, blocking me from taking action and move forward: having a difficult conversation with a colleague, saying no to someone I care about, writing whatever I needed to write, starting that important presentation. I realized that every choice I made and every action I took, could come from a place of fear or from a place of creation, and I was the only person who could decide which one to choose. Was I looking at the world with a scarcity mindset, seeing only limitations and risks, or rather seeing it as a place of abundance, plenty of resource and possibilities waiting to be discovered?
We are all born with an innate ability to create something new, to explore and discover. Have you ever seen a toddler who is not curious to touch and try everything? But somewhere along the way we lose faith in our creative energy.
We think creativity is for the painter, the writer, the graphic designer and the musician. Maybe we lost faith in the 6th grade when the music teacher told us we can’t sing. Or when dad laughed at our drawing of an elephant and said “look, a cow with a trunk”. Or when our best friend told us we were not funny.
Creativity is not only linked to the artistic fields, it's present and needed in any domain. It's a mindset you can apply to everything you do. Creativity is all about using your imagination to generate something new in the world, that others see value in. In the business world, creativity is manifested through innovation, either we talk about product innovation or just finding new and better ways of doing things, to have better results. It’s looking at an old problem through a new perspective and making new connections that help us find a better solution.
If you feel that you lost the key to your creativity gate at some point in your life, there’s hope. It’s still in you. The only thing you need to do is use it and put it into action. As I started to better understand how the creative process works, that it’s not all happening by magic, but there are concrete steps we can take towards being more creative, I also realize that with a bit of effort, anyone can be more creative than they currently are. Most of us will not become the next Picasso or Shakespeare, but we can become more creative than the majority of people who internalized the belief that “I am not the creative type, and that’s the end of the story”.
Tom Kelley and David Kelley, authors of Creative Confidence and founders of IDEO and Standford d.school, say that the first step toward a great answer is to reframe the question.
Throughout the different creative experiences I had over the years and inspired by the ideas in Creative Confidence, I want to highlight a few elements that helped me use more of my creative energy and unlock certain blockages.
1. Do you believe?
As Henry Ford once said, “whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right”. Attitude and mindset influence our actions and affect our perception of the world. For a very long time I had this fixed idea that I was not creative, because I was either judging the wrong outcomes, or I was comparing myself to others and I cared too much about what other people said. I had little understanding of what creativity was and I assumed it was an innate talent that some of us have and others don’t. I didn’t know that creativity was not this random expression of talent and inspiration, but a disciplined act, with structure and hard effort behind.
Like intelligence or leadership, creativity is a skill that can be developed like a muscle. We all have a different baseline and it’s true that some people have a head start and are lucky to be born with more creative abilities. But with sustained effort, the right strategy and intrinsic motivation, anyone can achieve a certain level of mastery. If you think about creative masters like Jackson Pollock, Vincent van Gogh or Marcel Proust, they all achieved recognition for their creative talent late in life, after many disappointments and rejections.
They could have given up and said, "I am just not that creative". But they kept on fueling that inner energy and continued on their path, believing that eventually, the pieces of the puzzle will connect and take them to the right place. Sometimes, we just need to give things the time they need to happen.
Some of us have a natural talent and passion for building things with their hands, for experimenting, making and breaking. Others play with sounds and with words. The object of play can take many forms, but as long as there is an act of taking existing elements and making something new with them, it’s a creative act. It doesn’t always have to be original and unique and something you can place in a museum.
It’s all about creating something new that makes our world a bit better, a bit more joyful. It can be writing a poem, composing a song and painting something. But it can also be creating a new healthy meal for our family or designing a small herbs garden on the balcony. It can be writing an article or creating a new process at work, that will reduce workload for your colleagues. Using our creative energy to improve things around us is so powerful, and it’s a matter of making that choice to act from a place of creation and not from fear.
2. What are you afraid of?
We all have our fears. I was laughing with my son the other day, when he told me that he has hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia. That is fear of long words. At first I thought he was joking, but it’s true. For the Harry Potter fans out there, fear is like a boggart. Nobody knows how a boggart looks like because it’s a shapeshifter and every person sees it differently, through their own subjective filter. There is this one spell though, that works every time: “Riddikulus”. But only incantation is not enough, you need to take action, use your imagination and have a good laugh at it. Would you be scared by a giant spider on roller skates? It appears that taking things less seriously and using more humor can help us feel less scared at times.
If you prefer a more science based approach to understand how fear blocks your creative energy, we need to talk about behavior modeling. In social learning theory, behavior modeling is the precise demonstration of a desired behavior. This theory says that we learn not only by doing but by watching what others do. When you learn how to make bread for the first time, you are watching someone else performing every step of the process and you’re copying those actions.
Albert Bandura was a psychology professor at Sandford who discovered how behavioral modeling could help people overcome phobias. In one of his famous experiments, he was working with patients suffering from snake phobia. Bandura was telling the patient that there was a snake in the room next door and that in a few minutes they would be going in there. Then, he was making small steps and gave them small challenges like watching someone else holding a snake and asking them what they thought it could happen next. Almost every time, the patients were convinced the other person would be strangled by the snake. Of course, contrary to their beliefs, the snake didn’t harm anyone. After a series of such small steps, the patients were able to sit right next to the snake and even touch it, curing their phobia.
In the context of creativity, we need to first understand where our fears are rooted and make them more specific. We need to give our fears a name. Is it fear of failure? Fear of being judged? Fear of losing something that you are attached to? Is it fear of pain and discomfort? What is it? Unless you make it more specific, you will have difficulties finding the right strategy to overcome it.
We also need to accept and embrace the uncertainty that comes with experimentation. We will not achieve mastery from working on one project. We will not create a masterpiece from the first try. We need to create a large amount of output in order to find some greateness in our work. The most creative and innovative people are not getting there because they have an innate ability and they are born creative geniuses. It’s because they are practicing, experimenting and failing a lot.
3. Experiment, experiment, experiment
We sometimes like to think that the most creative and productive people have some sort of innate brilliance and they create amazing works of art out of nowhere. But from scientists to artists, the most productive and innovative creators are those who just experiment more and put in more hours of work.
“A widely held myth suggests that creative geniuses rarely fail. Yet according to Professor Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis, the opposite is actually true: creative geniuses, from artists like Mozart to scientists like Darwin, are quite prolific when it comes to failure—they just don’t let that stop them. His research has found that creative people simply do more experiments. Their ultimate “strokes of genius” don’t come about because they succeed more often than other people—they just do more, period. They take more shots at the goal.” Tom Kelley, David Kelley, Creative Confidence
The key is to follow a red thread, observe and reflect the direction in which your skills are developing. If you don’t know where to start, just spend one week observing and journaling which activities in a day bring you joy, energy and flow. If we want to be creative and work towards mastery in a certain field or activity, we need to like what we’re doing, we need to feel energized by it and it has to be something that completely absorbs us. Anyone can find that one thing, when they pay enough attention.
I always loved writing, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I finally found out what I really wanted to write about. That sweet spot between the right content, form and style, that brings me joy and fullfilment. What Sir Ken Robinson calles The Element, the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion. It’s that thing that we like doing and when we do it, it immediately puts us in state of flow. We feel authentic and free and in total harmony with time.
But to get here, I went through many different failed writing experiences: a blogger blog about deserts, a tumblr about random experiences, a blog about book reviews and another about family meals and food stories. I knew I wanted to write, but the content was not fully representing who I was. I wanted to write about life, work and how people behave. I wanted to explore what makes a fulfilled life, through all the experiences I lived in the different areas of my life and with the people I interacted with. This is a journey that I enjoy and that I feel fully immersed in. But it was a process of discovery, self reflection and lots of experiments until I found that thing that was not too hot and not too cold.
We need to have faith, keep on building and creating on the foundation that's already there, learn from our mistakes and not give up.
And don’t worry too much about being original. When access to information and knowledge is so omnipresent today, it’s almost impossible to create something that is 100% original. Any innovation is built on a foundation that is already there. Rather than focusing on originality, focus on creating new connections. As David Perell highlights in this blogpost, “Yuval Noah Harari sold 12 million copies of Sapiens without adding any original research. He presented the literature in a new way and clarified it for normal people. While his success drives historians crazy, it’s a reminder that your writing doesn’t need to be 100% original.”
4. Overcome Resistance and Procrastination
One of the strongest blockers of creativity is the fear of failure, which manifests in many ways, including the fear of getting started and procrastination. Steven Pressfield refers to this blocker as a powerful force that tries to sabotage us, what he calls the Resistance. The more important something is to us and the higher the stakes, the more Resistance we will feel. The feeling is inevitable and we need to learn how to overcome it. Resistence is the villain in the movie. If there was no villain, there would be no movie.
“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance … Late at night, have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.” Steven Pressfield
Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it’s the easiest to rationalize. We don’t tell ourselves, “I’m never going to write my symphony.” Instead we say, “I am going to write my symphony; I’m just going to start tomorrow.”
One of my favorite explanations of how procrastination works, is from Tim Urban and his now famous TED Talk, Inside the mind of a procrastinator. We are not all chronic procrastinators, but we all are procrastinating at some point. And when we are in the middle of a creative activity, which by definition comes with a lot of unknowns, strong feelings and uncertain outcomes, we feel emotional discomfort. Our brain is wired to escape discomfort and seek activities that are easy and make us feel good. We need to learn how to activate the rational decision maker and keep the monkey happy, but calm.
From my experience with writing, photography and graphic design, I found two strategies that help me avoid procrastination:
1. I set SMART goals and plan everything I want to do, in my calendar. I use the timeboxing technique, where I keep all my activities in one calendar, so I avoid overcommitting or starting too many projects that I cannot finish.
SMART goals are good because they are very specific, for example, write one blog post and send one newsletter every month. They are measurable, because I can easily check if I did it or no. They are achievable, I know I have the skills and sustained interest to do it. They are relevant and linked to one of the important areas of my life. And most important, they are time bound, that means there is a deadline.
Especially for those of us with a higher tendency to procrastinate, deadlines are like the holy grail of self-efficacy. Without deadlines, we risk to move from one activity to another and not achieve anything we believe it’s important.
2. Separate the different stages of the creative process
I learned this strategy from Cristina Chipurici, who also introduced me to Tiago Forte’s Building a second brain method. It was one of those super simple insights that made me wonder “how could I have not known this for 38 years?”
a. Phase 1: Research and brainstorming. This is where we collect a lot of stuff and where we also clarify our objectives and goals for the project. so we make sure you don’t get lost and dig deeper than necessary. As a recovered perfectionist, this was always the trap I fell into. I went from one article to another, digging and digging, until I felt so overwhelmed that I could not find any energy to still express my thoughts and create something new.
b. Phase 2: Creation. Whether we talk writing, photography, drawing, music, making a presentation or building a business plan, creation or production is the second phase of the process. This stage comes with a lot of crappy material that you will end up not using. Here is where many of us get stuck and are afraid of failing. But as any highly creative and productive person knows, “the first draft of anything is shit”.
c. Phase 3: Editing and refining. This is the stage where we are the curators of our own work. This is where we should put our film editor hat and cut out everything that doesn’t support our main message and storyline, or can create more confusion for the audience. This is also a super hard phase because we fall pray to the IKEA syndrome: if it’s something we created with our own hands, it must have more value and it’s hard to scrap it. Killing our darlings is never easy, but it’s necessary of we want to create something great.
5. Actively Look for Inspiration
I used to think that I could only write if I felt inspired and I had a certain context that allowed me to express myself: I needed time, a quiet place, birds singing and Mercury aligned with Venus. But creativity requires productivity and productivity requires discipline. We need to make time for practice and we need to actively seek inspiration around us. The good news is that all we need to do, is paying attention. If we keep an open mind and we really pay attention to the world around us with all the experiences it can offer, we see that inspiration is there, shouting to be noticed.
In my work, I sometimes find myself making new connections and coming up with solutions while I do something else than thinking about that particular problem. It could be during a walk or during my drive home. It might sound counter productive but if we give ourselves some space for doing nothing and just mind wander, we might come up with connections we didn't think about. Recent studies have shown that mind wandering augments creativity and helps people increase their level of divergent thinking.
Go out and proactively seek experiences that will spark your creative thinking. If you want more creativity in your life, you need to be intentional about it. The best ideas come when you are not deeply focusing on a subject, but instead, you are exploring adjacent areas and worlds. If you are struggling with a challenging problem at work, think about who else could experience that same type of challenge, but in a different context. If you work in a large corporation, think about how would someone who’s a freelancer or working for a small business tackle that same issue.
Sometimes, all it takes is to ask the question in a different and more open minded way. Instead of immediately jumping to find a solution, you can take more time to explore and imagine possible scenarios. Reframing the problem in a different way, could open more creative solutions and spark more moments of inspiration. Being a parent forces me to use all the creative energy available to me. Not only to find new ways to engage and play with my child, but also to find the right arguments when he asks challenging questions. I sometimes imagine that there is this magic gate in children's brain, where they can peep in and see all the argumentation flaws of adults. It's their gift. Whenever I say something that contradicts what I said yesterday, he immediately catches it "aha, but yesterday you said this and that." So I always need to reframe and asks questions from a different perspective. It's a great creativity practice, although it's often exhausting.
Embracing a beginner’s mindset, staying curious and thinking like a traveler, are also helpful techniques. Imagine how you react when you are visiting a new city for the first time. You observe every detail, you pay attention to your surroundings, to how people look and behave. You notice a lot more details than when you are in your familiar setting. So just by using that filter, you can notice details you didn’t see in the past.
One way of acting like a traveler without actually travelling, is by making small changes to the route you take to work or to school. You can take another small road or make a detour so you see a different landscape. You can also set an intention to look for specific signs, let’s say how many traffic lights are on your daily route or how many houses with an closed fence. By setting an intention and focusing on a certain element, you will see the world from a totally new perspective. There's a great book I received for my birthday this year and it contains small activities designed to spark creativity and increase your capacity to notice things. Definitely a go-to resource if you want to practice the art of noticing.
Bathroom sign at the Lego House in Billund Denmark