People often cite “creativity” as the solution to a myriad of problems. Countless startup firms pride themselves on their creative approach to long-standing problems in business and commerce. But what does creativity really mean? And how can you increase your own creative output, instead of getting stuck in the same rut?
Defining Creative Thought
Collectively, we tend to think of Mozart, Picasso, Nietzsche, and other greats of art and culture as creative people. “They were so talented!” we think, assuming their minds were a God-given labyrinth of creative ideas, flowing unaided through the spigot of their artistic medium.
In truth, creativity is not a natural talent. Even the most “uncreative” individuals can teach themselves to free their minds and let new ideas flow forth. Creativity certainly comes more easily to some than others, but there is no proven link between creative thoughts and higher intelligence (once a certain threshold of IQ is passed, naturally).
Creative thoughts are the product of several factors, but the most important concept to grasp in unlocking creativity is the difference between open and closed modes of thinking. John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) often speaks about these modes of thinking, and how drastically our perception is altered by each mode.
Thinking in Open Mode vs. Closed Mode
Cleese cites the invention of penicillin, which was originally an accident:
When Alexander Fleming had the thought that led to the discovery of penicillin, he must have been in the open mode. The previous day, he’d arranged a number of dishes so that culture would grow upon them.
On the day in question, he glanced at the dishes, and he discovered that on one of them no culture had appeared.
Now, if he’d been in the closed mode, he would have been so focused upon his need for “dishes with cultures grown upon them,” that when he saw that one dish was of no use to him for that purpose, he would quite simply have thrown it away.
Thank goodness, he was in the open mode so he became curious about why the culture had not grown on this particular dish. And that curiosity, as the world knows, led him… to penicillin.
Now in the closed mode, an uncultured dish is an irrelevance. In the open mode, it’s a clue.
In other words, if we are bent on reaching a particular end goal, like producing dishes with bacterial cultures on them, we won’t see the failures in our process as curiosities. We are closed off to the world of possibility, and it will reflect in our process. Creative ideas often come as rabbit trails or divergences from the initial goal. Luckily, Fleming saw the uncultured dish as a curious thing to be explored, rather than throwing his hands up and deeming himself an abject failure.
Open Up In Small Doses
For everything there is a season, as the song says. We cannot run around in open mode 24/7, or nothing would ever get done. The next step in harnessing creativity is creating an environment in which it can bloom and grow!
The first step to unlocking open mode is setting aside time. Time when you can freely tune out, unplug, and stop doing busy work to distract you from the real work. It’s very easy to stay busy with mindless, easy tasks; they make you feel like you’re accomplished something, but in reality, the bigger issues have been neglected in favor of the trivial.
Cleese recommends an hour-and-a-half as the ideal amount of time to “seal yourself off” from the demands of the world. Think of it as playtime for your brain: there’s no goals, no objectives, no limits. Your mind is free to wander at will, as a sort of creative meditation.
These blocks of free time shouldn’t have an objective or a limit. You may need to spend several blocks of time thinking about one problem, turning it over and over in your mind. The most creative and original ideas come from sticking with a problem beyond your first solution. In a business culture dominated by productivity measures, it can be difficult to imagine spending an unlimited amount of time on any given issue. But that is the key: time.
Shut The Door, Keep Out The Devil
When you’ve set aside your thinking time, it’s important that your coworkers, colleagues, and family understand that you are off the grid. Turn off your phone, shut your door, close your email client, and let the wind take you. Physically sealing yourself off is crucial, because the unexpected office visit from Steve in accounting can zap you back to reality so fast that you’ll lose whatever creative train of thought you were riding. You’ve created a special time and place for yourself to think freely, talk to yourself, and turn a problem over and over in your mind.
Don’t let the fear of making a mistake keep you from pursuing an idea. In your open mode safe haven, you are free to think up something “stupid” and run with it. No one will criticize you, think less of you, or shut you down with a snappy remark. Think of playing as a child: when you were playing by yourself with dolls or action figures, there were no limits to the worlds your toys occupied. But then your brother shows up and says your game is wrong, because obviously a Lego guy wouldn’t rescue a Barbie. Nothing kills the flow of ideas faster than the fear of making a mistake.
Laugh About It
The last important element to your creativity recipe is humor. As Bob Newhart once said, “Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on.” If you can laugh at your own ideas, you won’t feel married to them. Many people get attached to their ideas regardless of their quality, and will cling to them long beyond the point when the idea has played out its usefulness.
Humor also breaks the solemnity barrier. Regardless of how serious the matter you’re contemplating is, solemnity can restrict your thoughts. Cleese says, “Well, I happen to think the main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.”
So if you’re feeling stuck in closed mode, even while you’re in your happy space and time with no distractions, try cracking a joke to yourself. What would the most absurd, ridiculously hilarious solution to the problem you’re thinking about look like? Is any of your idea useful to reality?
Creativity in Groups
Creativity on an individual level is worthwhile, but so is group creativity. If your team is regularly doing individual “creative meditation”, group sessions will be especially effective.
Use the four R’s to get a group session on the right track:
Turn an idea 360 degrees, upside down, and backward. Remove the basic assumptions of something, or reverse them to the opposite element.
Explain an idea from a different perspective. What if a 10-year-old were looking at this idea? How would she describe it, and what use would it have in her world?
Relate something marginally similar to your project. How can you use football lingo to describe the features of a garden tractor you’re trying to sell?
Word association games are hilarious, fun for everyone, and often lead to the most creative ideas around. Think about opposites, related concepts, or just the tried-and-true “What pops into your head when you hear X?”
Get Creative Today
Don’t sit around and wait for the lightning to strike you. Purposely define a space where open mode is welcome and desired, and follow the steps to get yourself there. An open mind can lead you to discovery, innovation, and if nothing else, a smile.