Business is obsessed with the C word. It marks the difference between winning and losing, the separation between fresh and stale. Without it, brands become stagnant and customers move on. We are, of course, talking about creativity.
But when our careers hinge upon us being constantly creative, what do we do when ideas run dry? Can we hack our productivity to become creative on demand – or does that very idea undermine the nature of creativity itself?
People speak about creativity like it’s some supernatural talent that only a few of us possess. As in the classical view, we’re simply creativity’s messenger, waiting for a muse to whisper in our ear so we can translate the beautiful will of the gods to the rest of the world. It’s a passive view of creativity; we wait for it to suddenly arrive and infuse us with originality, ideas and brilliance.
But is this unreliable, passive view of creativity useful or even accurate? In order to sustain themselves, creative businesses must be creative on demand – they can’t turn empty-handed to a client explaining divine creative spirit simply didn’t arrive. They thrive by their ability to “hack” or master creativity, which many people believe is within everyone’s power.
Steve Jobs suggested that you can actually teach yourself to become creative. “Creativity is just connecting things,” he explained. “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.”
If we’re to believe Jobs, then creativity isn’t so much about being roused or inspired, but being able to problem-solve in a creative way. It’s the idea that creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but that it can be “accessed” through a logical, systematic approach. It’s about connecting dots and theories, where each dot acts as a building block leading to a final, successful idea.
How to be creative on demand
Once you leave the mindset of “elusive gift” behind, and approach creativity as the ultimate form of problem solving, it gets a lot easier. It's not going to magically come to you; you've actively got to work for your creativity.
Creativity gives you license to suggest any possible solution you can think of, however fantastical it might outwardly seem. And the true strength of your creative ideas lies in your ability to think beyond existing barriers, ad infinitum. Here’s how to go about finding the dots you need to connect in the first place:
1. Embrace all ideas – even the bad ones
How many of us have been in meetings where everyone is asked to contribute ideas – and even though we had one, kept quiet? Fear of looking foolish silences even the best of us, but the single most effective way to enhance creativity is eradicating the concept of a poor idea. Having a bad idea – or an idea that just doesn’t work – is often the thing that generates another, more effective scheme.
Few things are as counterproductive to creativity than keeping quiet. You might think your idea is obvious, but to everyone else it could be the solution that’s eluded them. While it might not be fully polished, it could be a catalyst creative “dot”, igniting a path that leads to your final great idea.
2. Seek new experiences, then catalog them
New experiences, or experiences that make us think in new ways, can have enormous impact on our creativity. The more trips you take, the more books you read, the more conversations you have… all these things imprint important experience and new thought into your subconscious. You’re essentially building your own mental library that you can borrow from whenever you need inspiration.
But cataloguing it can also be essential to re-accessing those ideas. Your thoughts might be half-formed, but they are clearly significant to you at the time – capturing them ensures you can return to them. Whether it’s folder you fill with inspiring photos or articles, an online system that bookmarks interesting websites or social profiles, or simply scribbling down thoughts and reflections in a notebook – having material you can dive in and out of can help spark your next excellent idea. Creativity flows more easily when we have thought-provoking resources to peruse.
3. Get out of your comfort zone
Stepping out of your comfort zone kills two birds with one stone when it comes to creativity. Firstly, exposing yourself to the unknown stimulates your mind and gives you new ideas to store away in your mental box of inspiration. Secondly, embracing the uncomfortable can generate unexpected dialogues and help you reach new perspectives. The more contributions you have, the more connections you can make – just like Steve Jobs urged.
Talk to people who are completely different to you to find out what makes them tick, approach topics and discussions you know nothing about, even expose yourself to groups and thought that you are actively against – then use this information to bridge the gap between the familiar and unfamiliar. It’s a healthy exercise in introspection, but can also help you interact with ideas and viewpoints you’ve never encountered before.
4. Give yourself space
While creativity might be something we can control – to a degree at least – it’s still important to give yourself space when beginning the creative process. Find somewhere you can think without distraction; leave your phone, go for a walk, put yourself in a comfortable environment and let your thoughts flow freely.
You don’t have to be somewhere quiet or remote; just find somewhere that gives you mental space to press and unpick ideas without interruption, pressure or judgement. Employers should allow you the flexibility you need to get going, so see if you can move your schedule and arrange to work outside the office when you need to.