The Art of CreativityShare
When the creative spirit stirs, it animates a style of being: a lifetime filled with the desire to innovate, to explore new ways of doing things, to bring dreams of reality.
Has this ever happened to you? You're out for a jog, completely relaxed, your mind a pleasant blank. Then all of a sudden the solution to a problem you've been mulling over for weeks pops into your head. You can't help but wonder why you didn't think of it before.
In such moments you've made contact with the creative spirit, that elusive muse of good—and sometimes great—ideas. Yet it is more than an occasional insight. When the creative spirit stirs, it animates a style of being: a lifetime filled with the desire to innovate, to explore new ways of doing things, to bring dreams of reality.
That flash of inspiration is the final moment of a process marked by distinctive stages—the basic steps in creative problem-solving. The first stage is preparation, when you search out any information that might be relevant. It's when you let your imagination roam free. Being receptive, being able to listen openly and well, is a crucial skill here.
That's easier said than done. We are used to our mundane way of thinking about solutions. Psychologists call this "functional fixedness." We see only the obvious way of looking at a problem—the same comfortable way we always think about it. Another barrier is self-censorship, that inner voice of judgment that confines our creative spirit within the boundaries of what we deem acceptable. It's the voice that whispers to you, "They'll think I'm foolish," or "That will never work." But we can learn to recognize this voice or judgment and have the courage to discount its destructive advice.
Once you have mulled over all the relevant pieces and pushed your rational mind to the limits, you can let the problem simmer. This is the incubation stage, when you digest all you have gathered. It's a stage when much of what goes on occurs outside your focused awareness, in the unconscious. As the saying goes, "You sleep on it."
The unconscious mind is far more suited to creative insight than the conscious mind. Ideas are free to recombine with other ideas in novel patterns and unpredictable associations. It is also the storehouse of everything you know, including things you can't readily call into awareness. Further, the unconscious speaks to us in ways that go beyond words, including the rich feelings and deep imagery of the senses.
We are more open to insights from the unconscious mind when we are not thinking of anything in particular. That is why daydreams are so useful in the quest for creativity. Anytime you can just daydream and relax is useful in the creative process: a shower, long drives, a quiet walk. For example, Nolan Bushnell, the founder of the Atari company, got the inspiration for what became a best-selling video game while idly flicking sand on a beach.
With luck, immersion and daydreaming lead to illumination, when all of a sudden the answer comes to you as if from nowhere. This is the popular stage—the one that usually gets all the glory and attention, the moment that people sweat and long for, the feeling "This is it!" But the thought alone is still not a creative act. The final stage is translation, when you take your insight and transform it into action; it becomes useful to you and others.
"The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a fad."— President of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford's lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Company.
Our lives can be filled with creative moments, whatever we do, as long as we're flexible and open to new possibilities—willing to push beyond routine. The everyday expression of creativity often takes the form of trying out a new approach to a familiar dilemma. Yet half the world still thinks of creativity as a mysterious quality that the other half has. A good deal of research suggests, however, that everyone is capable of tapping into his or her creative spirit. We don't just mean getting better ideas; we're talking about a kind of general awareness that leads to greater enjoyment of your work and the people in your life: a spirit that can improve collaboration and communication with others.
Many of us do not see ourselves as being creative, because we don't have much of an audience for what we do. In fact, we focus too much on "Big C" creativity—the glamorous achievements of geniuses—and overlook the ways each of us displays flair and imagination in our own lives.
"We've become narrow in the way we think about creativity," observes Teresa Amabile, a psychologist at Brandeis University. "We tend to think of it as rarefied: artists, musicians, poets. But the cook in her kitchen is showing creativity when she invents a variation on a recipe."
Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist at Harvard, believes that what is true about Big C creators holds for the rest of us. "Every person has certain areas in which he or she has a special interest," he says. "It could be the way they teach a lesson or sell something. After a while they get to be as good as anybody."
There are others, however, for whom simply being good at something is not enough—they feel a need to be creative. "So what they do," Gardner explains, "is set small challenges for themselves, like making a meal a little differently from the way they've made it until now. This isn't going to get you into the encyclopedia. You're not going to change the way cooking will be done in the future. But you're going beyond the routine and conventional, and it gives you a kind of pleasure that is quite analogous to what the Big C creative individuals get."