The writer Mark Twain once stated that there is no such thing as a new idea. Our “creative thoughts” are actually nothing more than “mental kaleidoscopes,” or amalgamations of recycled ideas that originated elsewhere.
If you’ve ever spent days brainstorming and searching for inspiration in other people’s work, you know that there is much truth to this statement. What we define as creativity is actually something much more complex–and less world-shattering–than having a light bulb suddenly go off in our heads.
While creativity does entail giving life to “new” poems, songs, paintings and designs, there is so much more to it than just having a revolutionary thought pop into our minds. It is actually used in everyday life to solve problems and complete even the most ordinary tasks.
Far from a trait limited to the Picassos and Mozarts of the world, creativity is an ability that can be learned and harnessed with the right guidance. The problem is not that some people are creative and others are not, but rather that society has taught us to stifle our creative capacities. On top of this, the concept is surrounded by a series of misconceptions and popular myths.
To help you on your quest to unlocking your true creative potential–and generating your best ideas yet–we’ve extracted some life-altering advice from three of the most authoritative books on creativity, along with a list of some of the most widely believed myths on the subject.
According to psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, creativity is the “ability to generate new ideas and new connections between ideas and ways to solve problems in any field or realm of our lives.” Not only does everyone possess a degree of creativity, it can also be nurtured by creating the right conditions for its growth.
Although it was once thought that only “creative types” with world-changing ideas such as Shakespeare and Steve Jobs possessed this ability, research has revealed that there are actually different degrees of creativity. There’s so-called “Big-C” creativity, which refers to ingenious culture-changing concepts like the Internet and the iPhone, and then there’s “little-c” creativity, which includes all types of resourceful thinking, from knowing how to substitute ingredients in a recipe to finding new ways to raise funds for a campaign.
Also, research shows that creativity is not limited to a specific discipline and that it can be easily fueled by appreciating others’ creativity, such as listening to music and viewing works of art.
The popular assumption that creative people are right-brained and logical thinkers are left-brained is completely wrong. At one point, research conducted with participants who had the left part of their brains surgically severed from their right supported this concept, but it turns out that these findings were not applicable to the rest of the population. Most people use both the left and right side of their brains simultaneously, and the capacity to be creative doesn’t originate from any one hemisphere.
Another misconception is that being under pressure to complete a project by a given deadline fuels creativity. While this may be true in the sense that a “high consequence” environment is conducive to “flow” (as discussed in Part 1 of this topic), research conducted by Harvard professor Teresa Amabile indicates that fighting the clock kills creativity. In fact, the study not only found that people were the least creative when they were under time constraints, it also revealed that they experienced a “creativity hangover,” which caused the participants to be less creative for the following two days.
Amabile puts it best when she states that ideas need time to marinate. “Creativity requires an incubation period; people need time to soak in a problem and let the ideas bubble up.”
From Van Gogh slicing off his own ear to Kurt Cobain taking his own life, history is full of creative geniuses who were both blessed and tormented by their own exceptional talents. While there are research results that have been interpreted as suggesting there is a link between mental illness and creativity, the general consensus among creativity experts is that there is no connection between the two. What’s more, studies have indicated that creativity is more likely to be present when one feels positive emotions, such as joy, happiness and love, than when one experiences negative emotions, such as anxiety and fear.
Although most people conflate intelligence and creativity, the two are actually separate capacities. Studies conducted by Deyoung revealed that a high IQ is not a requirement for high creativity and that the two are mildly correlated constructs with different underlying factors. While intelligence has to do more with processing speed, memory and planning, creativity is characterized by novelty, beauty and utility.
Books on how to unleash your creative potential abound, so knowing who to listen to is important when it comes to choosing your creativity experts. Based on reviews and overall critical reception, we’ve selected three of the most consulted manuals on creativity and innovation and highlighted some of their most useful advice.
Written by acclaimed innovation experts Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s DNA is a must-read for those in search of the “secret sauce” of successful business innovation. It outlines five “discovery” skills that distinguish the most outstanding innovators from the rest of the population.
Skill 1: Associating
The likes of Steve Jobs and Pierre Omidyar have introduced culture-changing ideas by simply connecting the dots between seemingly unrelated concepts. The brain does not work like an encyclopedia–with separate entries for different ideas–but rather relates ideas in several ways. The word “dance,” for instance, brings to mind countless experiences and images, so the more knowledge and experiences one has, the more connections one is able to make between unconnected dots.
Skill 2: Questioning
The most successful innovators know how to ask tough questions that challenge assumptions. They are not only prone to asking “what if” and “why not” more than most people, they also tend to play the devil’s advocate by pushing themselves to embrace seemingly opposing ideas and–at times–even synthesizing the two. They impose hypothetical constraints to force themselves to think outside of the box. For example, they might ask: What would happen if our current client base decided to no longer do business with us? How could we still make a profit?
Skill 3: Observing
Another quality possessed by most innovators is that they have mastered the habit of observing the way people behave, especially potential customers. By observing how clients interact with their products and services, innovators notice seemingly unimportant details that give them great insight into how to significantly improve how something works.
Skill 4: Experimenting
For the most successful innovators, the world is their laboratory. They are constantly trying out new ideas and creating prototypes and test pilots. Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, for example, didn’t stand still in its safe place of online book selling, but evolved from a bookstore to an electronics manufacturer.
Skill 5: Networking
The most creative entrepreneurs are those who have made networking part of their routine. We are not talking, though, about making connections with others to promote your product or service–which most executives do–but rather about meeting people from a variety of industries outside of your own, as well as people from all walks of life with radically different perspectives from those in your field. This constant–and sometimes counterintuitive–sort of networking allows innovators to make unforeseen connections between concepts and provides them with some of their most valuable insights.
One of the most influential books on divergent thinking is Creativity, Inc., written by the president of Pixar, Ed Catmull. By engagingly documenting the creative process behind every film created by Pixar, from Toy Story to Ratatouille, Catmull provides readers with a list of principles for nurturing a creative culture within any organization. Here are a few of them:
Principle 1: It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas.
One of the reasons Pixar has been so successful in creating some of the most innovative and memorable movies lies in its commitment to prioritizing the story above everything else–even time, titles, technology and resources. In Pixar, the best story idea always wins, regardless of who it came from and the apparent constraints to executing it. Its culture fosters creativity by making everyone equal and allowing anyone to offer ideas and feedback. As stated in the previous section, the best insights can come from the most unexpected places.
Principle 2: Do not become emotionally attached to your work.
After pouring our heart and soul into a creative project, it is only natural to want to defend our work. Don’t do it, writes Catmull. When it comes to evaluating a product and finding ways it could work better, one should always be willing to go back and improve it or even start from scratch, if necessary.
Principle 3: Embrace vulnerability.
A powerful principle for unlocking creativity is knowing how to embrace and not hide your own vulnerability. Most of the time, our creative potential is stunted by our own ego and the fear of failure. We can do away with these limitations by placing our focus not on the possibility of failure, but rather on the possibility of giving life to something that will inspire and motivate others to create something great of their own. In doing so, we are better able to infuse our work with the emotional connection needed to genuinely move audiences.
Written by the founder of IDEO and the Stanford d.school, Tom Kelley, and his brother David Kelley, the book Creative Confidence makes the case that most of us are actually born creative and are taught to become unoriginal over time either through people who have mistakenly told us we aren’t creative or through negative experiences. By pinpointing four common fears that inhibit us from producing our best work, the Kelley brothers provide useful advice on how to reclaim our “creative confidence.”
Inhibitor 1: Fear of the unknown
Much of our creative potential is stifled due to conformity and the fear of the unknown. Rather than venture out into uncharted territory by meeting new people and trying new things, we often prefer to stick with what is familiar and comfortable because it’s easier. The Kelleys describe how their Stanford d.school students were able to come up with their most insightful and innovative ideas by leaving their comfort zones and embarking on an adventure, such as traveling to a far-off country and immersing themselves in the culture or approaching complete strangers to provide feedback on their prototypes.
Inhibitor 2: Fear of judgment
To prove their point that “uncreativity” is learned and not inherent, the Kelleys contrast two phases of our lives: childhood and adolescence. While we are our most creative selves as children–we make up stories, imagine ourselves in far-off lands, paint colorful pictures and make creatures out of clay–we are perhaps our most “uncreative” selves during adolescence, when the fear of judgment sets in. This is why the Kelleys routinely hold workshops in which they encourage participants to come up with crazy–and even improbable–solutions to a certain problem. Through this method, several companies they have consulted have generated award-winning ideas.
Inhibitor 3: Fear of the first step
Many times we waste time thinking and planning our first steps. The Kelleys advice? Just do it, they say. Just take the first step and don’t let your anxiety build by waiting to write your first words on that blank page or getting started on that project. Adopting a fearless attitude in the creative process, they assert, is key to silencing this third inhibitor.
Inhibitor 4: Fear of losing control
Although we relish the feeling of being in control, one of the keys to unleashing our creative potential is being willing to let others know that we don’t have all the answers. By being humble enough to listen to others’ feedback and ideas, regardless of their status, we are more likely to find better and more innovative solutions to any problem.
The experts agree that to be more creative, one must be willing to take risks and challenge oneself on a daily basis. Instead of silencing your ideas before they even see the light of day, try writing them out on a notepad or whiteboard, even if they seem implausible or unconvincing at first. Remember: You were born to create and inspire others through your life’s work.
“Courage is only the accumulation of small steps.”