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5 Paradoxical Ways to Capture the Elusive Art of Creativity

New research explains how you can learn to be creative.

miodrag ignjativic/iStockphoto
Source: miodrag ignjativic/iStockphoto

On the surface, the notion of “creativity” sounds elusive. Coming up with a unique insight to produce an idea, song, poem or solution to a problem feels like a task meant for a blessed few. We usually reserve the term for people of the ilk of Steve Jobs—the inventor, Ludwig van Beethoven—the musician, Walt Whitman—the poet, or Elon Musk—the problem solver.

Such people always seem to be far beyond the reach of the ordinary. Their inventions and creations appear to be inspired from a world beyond the reality that we know, and their creative talents seem mysterious, to say the least. Some may even opine that these people are born with a special creative ability.

Yet, recent research on creativity indicates that our genes account for only 10 percent of being creative. The rest of it is learned, acquired, or dared. And there are clues about how you can navigate the journey to this hallowed ground too.

Abandon the question, “How?”: The first clue is a paradox unto itself, as it simply requires abandoning the question, “How should I become creative?” When you abandon this question, you stop trying to follow the way of others, and search instead for your own path to creativity. And you can start this internal search by building unfocus times into your day.

At baseline, your brain uses 20 percent of the body’s energy at rest—effort tacks on only another 5 percent. So when you’re sleeping, napping, or lying in a hammock,your brain is busy shuttling ideas around, recombining them, and setting you up to be the creative person that you can be. If you want to become creative, you may need to build more of these “off” periods into your day.

Going for a walk outside, and allowing your mind to wander will most certainly count. At lunch, after lunch, mid-afternoon or at the end of a workday, this will get your creative juices flowing as your brain will switch to “time machine” mode, activating old and intangible memories—even fragments of them—putting puzzle pieces together, and then creating a creative template in your mind that you can build on.

Make a commitment to non-normal: The norm is not that most people are not creative, but that they choose not to be. For that reason, abandon the idea of being normal. You don’t have to be abnormal. i.e. You needn’t go against the grain just for the sake of that. But if you search deep within, you will see that there are parts of you that don’t fit the norm—unique aspects of your life experience that are just waiting to jumpstart your creativity that I call "non-normal."

In fact, research shows that people who commit to being “normal” are less creative. They do not possess a trait vital for creativity. Called “openness to experience”, this trait can only be activated when you unlock yourself from the chains of normality. This will activate the brain’s unfocus network, which is necessary for creativity.

While this may sound elusive at first, you can start with baby-steps. Call up an old friend, take a walk along an unknown street, sign-up for an event that interests you, or contact someone who interests you on LinkedIn. You’ll be surprised what this may lead to.

Surrender to chaos: Most people try to organize their days as much as possible. But there is reason to believe that too much organization will rob you of your creativity. Rather, start by saving an hour of your day for non-planned activities.

Perhaps you can enter keywords that interest you into a search engine. Then after a half hour, write them all down to see what your brain came up with, and write a story that connects all of them. You don’t have to be afraid here—studies have shown that 75 percent of all scientific findings are unexpected anyway. So your little experiments make sense.

But you don’t even have to create chaos—just wake up, and you will see that chaos awaits you in your inbox, home, and work. Rather than react to all of this by organizing your day immediately, let it be as it is for 30 minutes. Then, sit back, and ask yourself, “What is the opportunity here?” You will likely be able to prioritize the most important tasks, delay the others, and even ignore the tasks that have no relevance to your life. When you do, you will see that you’ve already started to be creative.

Surrender to Inspiration: When you’re inspired, you feel lucky. But inspiration doesn’t have to arrive by chance. You can actually create moments of inspiration if you build time into your day. And inspiration has a three-part architecture that you can construct.

It starts with an aesthetic appreciation of something. This is followed by mind-wandering, and finally, an act. To begin, find something online that you strikes you as beautiful. Look at it awhile until it gets your appreciation juices flowing. Thereafter, set aside 15-30 minutes to let your mind wander (Do you wish you had it?—Is there a way to get it? Is it just enough that you can see it?) Then, see what you feel motivated to do (Do you want to write a poem about it—Perhaps, print it out and add it to a journal without reason?) At the end of the week, you can contemplate where your unconscious mind may have been.

This kind of action usually reveals something previously unknown about yourself, but it is interesting to ask, "Why did I choose these seven images at the end of the week? What do they say about me?"

Practice abstraction: People, activities are in your life, tasks you have to complete, all lend themselves to being symbols. They could be “+” or “-“, or “LF” (life promoting) or LD (life draining). Or they could represent fountains (F) or drains (D), allowing you to more succinctly categorize them as useful or useless.

Look at your schedule today. Which ones are “F” and which ones are “D?. Perhaps you have some which are FD? This will allow you to ask, "How do I build more “F” into my life?" You’ve symbolized your life, and activated your creative brain.

These methods, although seemingly elusive, are quite do-able. They require blocking off a period of time each day to do each of them. When you do, they will jumpstart your creative brain. Then you will see that creativity was always at your fingertips—you just had to unfocus enough to see it.

If you are interested in more ways to be creative, get a copy of “Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind” (Ballantine Books, 2017). It was voted one of Coastal Living’s Best Books for the beach this summer.

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