5 Tips for Maximizing Your Creativity
Being more creative may not be as hard as you think.
Posted December 28, 2020
NOTE: This post is co-authored by Adam Powell, based on his article here.
Have you ever wanted to be more creative? Perhaps you looked at a painting and wished you had that kind of “inspiration,” or read a novel and wondered why you weren’t gifted with the power to spin a story. What makes creative people different? Is it something in the brain or the genes? Is it a special kind of formative experience that the rest of us missed out on? Or is it a supernatural gift?
None of these is what makes creative people different, because creative people are not fundamentally different than anyone else. All people have the ability to be creative, whether they exercise this ability or not.
It’s a matter of basic developmental physiology. The human brain starts off at birth with about a hundred billion neurons, virtually all of the neurons it will ever have. But those neurons are relatively loosely connected. Studies of both monkeys and humans have documented heightened production of connections throughout the brain shortly after birth. In fact, the number of total synaptic connections plateaus at levels nearly twice as high as in adults, before it slowly begins to decline to normal adult levels by adolescence. Our experiences and learning are, at least in part, involved in this strengthening and pruning of neural connections. As we learn, we develop our brains’ abilities to make new associations among stored experiences, and that makes it possible for us to think new kinds of thoughts.
In fact, numerous “creativity training” programs have been developed over the past several decades. Although the principles and methods of these programs differ relatively widely, they all emphasize that creativity is about developing skills, not about God-given talent. And they seem to work. In an article published in the Creativity Research Journal, investigators used a procedure known as meta-analysis to combine the data from 70 studies of these programs, analyzing them together. Collectively, they found a sizable effect.
But, if creativity is something anyone can develop, why do most of us feel so uncreative? Part of the reason may be a few unhelpful beliefs we’ve internalized throughout our lives. These include the assumptions that creativity is a rare gift that not everyone has; that creativity is mysterious and comes when we least expect it; and that creativity is triggered by things that are out of our control, often coming in fits of “inspiration.”
There’s no doubting that creativity sometimes strikes us suddenly and unpredictably. Most of us have occasionally enjoyed a “flash of insight” or been inspired by something we saw, heard, or read. But most everyday creativity doesn’t require this kind of inspiration.
It just requires a little discipline and a solid method.
Here are five tips that may help set you up to be more creative:
Tip #1: Get curious. Ask a lot of questions.
Everyday creativity begins with knowing how to ask the right questions—questions that synthesize and integrate the information you already have, in ways that point you toward other questions. And the process repeats, leapfrogging from question to question, until you arrive at a new, interesting insight.
This is a skill that has to be developed through practice. By asking lots of questions, you learn to ask better questions. You can approach these questions with a kind of “beginner’s mind,” as if you were a preschooler again. If you’ve ever lived with a preschool-aged child, you know why kids are so creative. They ask loads of questions, often not worrying about whether those questions are “good” or not. As children make connections between ideas, they increase their knowledge and ability to ask even better questions.
Tip #2: Develop a love of learning.
It’s hard to create something new if you don’t know about the old stuff. If you want to write a story, you have to know a lot about literature so you don’t end up doing a bunch of things that have already been done. If you’re trying to develop a new theory to explain a particular scientific phenomenon, it’s likewise helpful to know about all the research that came before. So, it’s important to make yourself really knowledgeable about the content domain in which you’re trying to be creative.
But, beyond that, it’s also useful to know at least a little about subjects outside of your main area of expertise. If you only know about horror movies and nothing else, you’re probably not going to come up with a plot twist that no one else has tried, because you’re only familiar with the plot twists already used in other horror films. And, horror films tend to rely on a small number of specific plot twists. You can get dug into a rut before you ever start writing. So, it’s a good idea to learn about the plot twists that other genres of film or novels or even comic books have used. In other words, being a consistently creative person often involves stoking a lifelong love of learning.
Tip #3: Practice making connections between unrelated subjects.
We all know people who easily make connections between ideas. Anything you say triggers a thought about something else, and that triggers another thought, and pretty soon you’re talking about the first time someone saw a live yak, when you just wanted to know if they needed a gluten-free dinner option. For other people, however, making connections can take a bit more effort. But, it’s a skill that anyone can practice and develop.
Again, everyday creativity isn’t always about a sudden, magical stroke of insight. Instead, it’s often about putting old ideas together in novel ways. This notion of creativity has been around for a long time. In 1962, psychologist Sarnoff Mednick, writing in the journal Psychological Review, defined creativity as “the forming of associative elements into new combinations which either meet specified requirements or are in some way useful.”
It’s a little like playing a chess match. Because chess has been played billions of times, you’d think there was nothing new left in the game. And it’s true that even the most creative players often return to the same sequences over and over. Some players always use the same opening or aim to use a certain gambit at a particular point in every match. But the creativity of playing chess is in using those familiar sequences in unfamiliar combinations. You might offer a certain trade that looks like a common gambit, but you’ve already arranged your other pieces to take advantage of your opponent’s response in an unexpected way. This method of combining familiar things in new and useful ways can work in virtually any endeavor. Look to what’s been done in the past—whether it’s a tried-and-true chord progression on the guitar or a standby scientific methodology—then play around with it. See if there are new ways of rearranging and connecting these old things.
Tip #4: Get into the habit of noticing opportunities.
Because many of us assume we’re not creative, we may not even look for opportunities to be creative. But, if we widen our view a bit, we may notice that opportunities are all around us.
As just one example, when Luke Guidici found an old camera in a thrift shop, he noticed it had an undeveloped roll of film in it. Curious, he bought the camera and sent the film off to be developed. In the meantime, he began thinking about the person who abandoned the pictures and realized that other people might be curious about such things, too. So, he went to all the thrift stores in the area and bought every camera with old film in it. He eventually collected all the most interesting pictures he found, wrote an original short story about each one, and published them in a book called Found in Kitsap.
Tip #5: Believe in the powers you were born with.
A final tip for maximizing everyday creativity involves believing you’re capable of being creative. If you don’t believe in your ability, at least a little, it’s easy to set up a self-fulfilling prophecy where you don’t even try. Children say, “Mommy, watch me dance” and just start dancing. They don’t know what moves they’re going to make; they just move. But, as adults, we often outwit ourselves. Unless we happen to be someone who dances on a regular basis, we may not trust ourselves to start moving. “I’ll look silly,” we may tell ourselves. “I’m not a dancer.”
Every creative act is a trust fall. You put your dreams, goals, and ambitions out over empty space, and expect your intellect to land them safely. Not every idea you come up with will be a good one, of course. That’s okay. But, if you follow the above tips, when you need to produce an idea, some idea will come out. If it’s not good enough, you produce another one. Eventually you’ll land on something worthwhile.
Being creative in this way isn’t an easy or sure path to success or stardom. Instead, it’s a discipline that takes a lifetime to master. But, it proves its worth every day. And, as an added bonus, you’ll live each day knowing that the best is yet to come.