The One Question That Will Make You More Creative, Guaranteed

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Synopsis

There is a question that will make you more creative. Guaranteed. But it isn’t what you think.

“On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy,” the King of Madison Avenue, David Ogilvy, once said. So it likely was with the headline of this piece. Here’s the good news: there is no bait and switch here. There is a question that will make you more creative. Guaranteed. But it isn’t what you think.

One of the most powerful forces for tapping and honing your creativity is inquiry. It isn’t the question, however, that makes inquiry so potent. It’s the mindset, the way in which you look at the world around you and the thinking that accompanies it. That’s where the power lies. The clout comes forth when you make that mindset active – probing, being curious, and pursuing those things that make your head turn. It’s an important distinction. When we neglect that distinction we forget that questions are simply tools. Questions aid the probing and direct curious exploration. But once the questions are answered, the inquiry remains – at least for the person who understands that creativity is a uniquely human capacity in need of perpetual use and shaping.

In that context, how can the headline of this piece be true? How can there be one question that will make you more creative, guaranteed? Good question.

As part of a multi-year creativity study, I had the unique opportunity to speak in depth with nearly seventy MacArthur Fellows. While unique in a number of ways, the Fellowship stands apart as the only award given explicitly for creativity. In the press it’s more popularly referred to as the “Genius Award”, a two-edged distinction to be sure, but one that gives a proper nod to a group of people who know a little something about creativity in actual practice. When I spoke with each of these creative practitioners I asked them this:

Are there certain questions that keep resurfacing for you?

This, I submit, is the very question that will make you more creative, guaranteed. With one small catch (more on the catch in a moment).

When I asked this question of MacArthur Fellows, I did not expect a singular answer. I simply knew the power of inquiry and wondered how it had come into play for this incredibly diverse group of individuals. My question was, as a question should be, simply a probe. I had no idea what I would get in response. Yet even expecting the unexpected I was truly surprised when ever single person offered up a single question of their own that had continually surfaced as a guide for them.

The range of their questions was profound, from perhaps more anticipated forms like, “Is this really so?” and “Wouldn’t it be cool if… ?”, to the less expected, “If I walked away, would I see it differently?” or “How does nature do this, and how does nature know?” But across all of them, two common elements made all of their questions powerful.

First, each question logically fit into what that person was passionate about and practiced. At times this common trait of “fit with passion” astounded, such as the novelist whose ongoing question was, “What is it about the ‘lie’ of fiction that we seem to need or at least be attracted to?” or the choreographer who couldn’t stop pursuing the question, “Why is danger profound?” Astounding or not, the key was that the question did it’s job, stimulating deeper curiosity and fueling the pursuit of passion in their actual professional practice.

The second feature that made these questions powerful was that each question was also "perpetual". There is no single or final answer, for example, to the civil rights lawyer whose question was, “How can I change the way we think about this?” In a similar way, how could the photojournalist answer for all time, “How can I weave the light into the dark?” All of these deeply creative souls had some lingering question rolling around in their head (sometimes consciously, often not) that had no end, only the promise of ongoing possibility. It’s the very kind of question that ensures inquiry remains the focal point.

Such questions exist for us all. No one can tell us what ours is. But the odds are better than not that there is a question driving you regardless of how closely you may take note of it right now. What the question means to you, how you phrase or apply it, even the question itself is meant to have a strong element of fluidity. What matters is the habit of asking, and when we allow a question to drive us to keep doing that, our odds of being creative rise dramatically. Guaranteed.

Tags: creativity, innovation, inquiry, larry robertson

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