Creativity is vitally important. Historically, it’s what has allowed us to thrive as a species, and it remains to this day the key element underlying all of our innovations.
Despite its obvious importance, creativity is something which we often overlook, and a trait which many people feel they do not possess. What’s more, a large proportion of workers feel the creativity that they do have isn’t utilised in their working life.
With this in mind – and considering the challenges I myself have faced when approaching creative tasks – I’ve looked into both how and why original ideas occur. As well as this, I’ve suggested 3 ways in which we can all nurture our own creativity, whether in our working lives or elsewhere.
We’ve all seen the stereotype image of the creative; deep in thought, waiting for a burst of insight. When the idea does come, it strikes instantly, and occurs due to a combination of astonishing intelligence and deep reflection.
In reality, however, creativity is often far more random, confusing and unpredictable than this, and is as likely to occur when you’re having a shower as when you’re scratching your head for answers.
Where do creative ideas come from?
James Webb Young, in his 1939 book A Technique for Producing Ideas, wrote this, now eternalised, quote about creative ideas:
“An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements”
Good ideas come from our brains’ ability to stitch together snippets of information in a way at they never have been before. Innovation speaker Steve Johnson described the process of creativity in similar terms when speaking in a TED talk in 2010; adding that – rather than being formed through deep reflection and focus – innovations generally come into being in entirely random situations.
“They’re cobbled together from whatever parts that happen to be about nearby, we take ideas from other people … and we stitch them together into new forms and create something new”
What happens when a musician comes up with new material gives us a handy metaphor for this theory of how ideas form. An individual learns about necessary timings, notes and techniques, with no originality at all coming into the process. The original music emerges when their trained minds effortlessly stitch together what they know in moments of inspiration.
That’s all very interesting Jack. But how do we put ourselves in the position to have these great ideas?
Funny you should ask
1) Lay the groundworks for creativity
If creative ideas are a combination of other elements and ideas, the essential task of anyone looking to be creative is to fill their minds with as many of these relevant ‘elements’ of knowledge as possible.
Whilst Hollywood is full of creatives who instinctively invent, innovate and create, the fact is that most real insights come with a real understandings of the challenges, opportunities and practical availabilities associated with their own industry. In the words of innovation speaker Rowan Gibson:
“These are like the raw material out of which exciting innovation breakthroughs are built. If you ask people to innovate in a game-changing way without first building a foundation of novel strategic insights, you find that it’s mostly a waste of time.”
Whatever it is you’re looking to innovate in, the fact is that you’re much more likely to succeed if you commit yourself to building a strong base of knowledge. Like American writer Steven King said:
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Whilst there’s no such thing as useless information when it comes to industry knowledge, a sound understanding of your company ethos and mission statement is paramount, as well as your exact sellable asset, your USP and your competition. Crucially, know your customer and their needs. This will make you infinitely more likely to stumble across something they’ll love, as well as to make use of it if you do have a creative breakthrough.
2) Get in the mind-state for creativity
Research says that being in a calm, happy and distracted mind-state is a great way to encourage new innovations. In the words of creativity speaker Shelli Walsh:
“Any activity where we are relaxed yet focused on a mundane function and not thinking is our sweet spot for ideas.”
The fact that our brains come up with solutions at times when we aren’t desperately looking for them goes against the traditional logic that we must force ourselves to come up with creative ideas in the moment, and encourages a less restrictive process of idea generation.
It’s been found that sleeping on a problem can help us find solutions, as well as that being relaxed and happy more generally can improve our creativity. As strange as it may seem, detaching ourselves mentally from the problem at hand can often make it a lot easier to solve.
3) Find your creative environment
Whilst most of the time, we’re expected to innovate whilst in the workplace, in reality it’s often being out of this space which is best for the creative process. There are countless examples of successful innovators having their “eureka moments” whilst in leisure settings, often in moments when they’re not even looking for inspiration.
Leaving the physical location where you’re working can not only distract you from the stress of battling with a problem, but can also allow your unconscious mind to mull over the problem, and create links which you may not have seen in a more formal setting.
Often, we find that there are specific places where we personally feel more creative; whether because we are distracted, relaxed, or just plain happy. Making use of these spaces can be a huge aid to the idea generation process. Crucially, don’t just sit there and struggle if you’re not making the links you need. In the words of psychology and marketing professor Art Markman Ph.D:
“In cases where you are stuck on a difficult problem, it can be valuable to walk away from that problem and to engage in another activity. Take a walk. Play a mindless video game for a few minutes”
So there we have it, three simple ways to nurture creative ideas. When you’re next looking for inspiration, be sure to cram your mind with useful information, relax, take your time and try a different physical location if you’re struggling. It’s better than sitting there pulling your hair out isn’t it?