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You Don't Have to Be 'A Creative' To be Creative

It's a common misconception that only certain people get to be creative. The truth is that we all are, and it's the most important thing we can be.
11
minute read
Creativity
May 1, 2020

Creativity is not for the few

There's a common misconception that creativity is the preserve of the few.

'Creativity' - they say - is not for the likes of you and me. It is reserved for painters, for sculptors, for writers, for musicians, for poets and for animators and actors and directors and all the rest. 

With people like that hogging all the creative juices, there’s nothing left for the rest of us. It’s a shame, but there we are.

Or, let’s consider the alternative: that narrative is false. The reality is that creativity - in all its many forms - is accessible to all.

In fact, believing that 'I'm not creative' is one of the most harmful things any of us can think. When we say it to ourselves, we do immense damage to our potential.

The truth is that creativity is what humans do. We are all creative, whether we like it or not. It is a fundamental human ability that has allowed us to get to where we are today.

It is not the preserve of any one group. We find it everywhere in science, engineering, law, politics and education. Name any other professional field, you’ll find it there as well. Creativity also dwells in our relationships with others - in our families and with our partners, children, friends.

It extends far beyond our public lives and our professions, and it reaches into our private lives because it was never something external. It's an inherent ability, a skill, a facet of every one of us. To be human is to be creative.

Are you a human? Good - you already have immense creative potential.

It's simple. But it does amazing things.

Creativity has an image problem. It's become a very big word. It carries a lot of weight and makes us immediately think of towering works of human achievement. Think: the Eiffel Tower, The Hoover Dam and the complete works of Shakespeare.

It's easy to get caught up in the concept of what it is, rather than knowing what it means in practice. The reality is that creativity is powerfully simple.

The essence of creativity is - drumroll - making connections. That's it. That’s all it is. This is good news, because you and I make connections all the time.

  • We are making connections when we take things that already exist, jumble them together, and produce something new. We do this whenever we cook, write, dream or even have a conversation with someone.
  • We are making connections when we imagine something that doesn't exist yet. We do this whenever we think about what we want to do next weekend, next year, or in the next ten years.
  • We are making connections when we produce something - anything at all - that comes from our own unique set of values, skills and circumstances. We do this whenever we form an argument.

Simple foundations allow useful complexity

‘Just making connections’ is simplicity itself. The beauty of simple things is that they allow really complex and interesting things to happen.

  • There are only 26 letters in the alphabet. From those few letters, amazing works of literature are possible.
  • There are only three primary colours. Combining them in different ways yields millions of different colour variations.
  • DNA is made up of 4 main building blocks (C, G, A & T). From the combination of those base elements, every person you've ever met has been created.

The truth is, incredible things can be created from the most basic of elements. That's why we don't need the best camera to take our first photo. We don't need the best pen to write the finest letter. We don't need to have been to a famous cooking school to create an amazing meal.

All we need is to start where we are, with what we have and do what we can to make those new connections. 

You don’t need to be a genius

There's no gene associated with creativity. In fact, there's this troubling misconception that some people are ‘born that way’. They were made to be more creative than others but, luckily, this is not true.

There's also no truth to the idea that having a high IQ will make anyone more creative.

After a certain point (an IQ of 120) you don't become any more creative by having a higher IQ. This means it's possible for someone with an average IQ to be more creative than someone thought of as a genius.

The truth is that we actually don't even need to be thinking to be creative. Neuroscience has identified three types of thought that we all take part in every day:

  1. Divergent thinking - letting our minds roam wild and free, coming up with ideas and thoughts, and accepting them.
  2. Convergent thinking - coming up with the right answer and focusing our thought to produce something that is correct.
  3. UN-thinking - when we are not actively thinking and we let our minds wander. (Think 'staring into space while soaking in the bath'.)

We need all three types of thinking to make creative progress.

No such thing as 'eureka'

Everyone likes to think of creativity as being dependent on eureka moments. Think Newton getting hit on the head with an apple, or Archimedes jumping out of his bath.

They make for a great story. Though they may happen sometimes, they hide the real story.

These moments almost always come to us after a long time of preparing, incubating and generally sitting on our ideas.

They don’t appear out of nowhere. They emerge after a lot of work, and a lot of time.

Nobody sits under a tree and gets zapped with the best idea the world has ever seen because they're creatively blessed. They had to put the work in before they got lucky.

We can get the same result by making sure we actually put the work in - we don't have to be geniuses.

It takes time - don’t expect immediate results

The good news is that truly groundbreaking creativity doesn't just pop up out of the ground. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was effortlessly created because someone just had the gift or the talent or the money or the connections.

Of course, those things would make it easier for any of us, but this doesn't change the fact that we still need to do the work. And just because we don't have the connections or the money is no excuse to not do something about it - if that were the case, there'd be no hope for any of us.

Even after we've done the work, there's no guarantee we'll look at what we've created and be amazed at our talent. Like anything else, creativity takes time. It emerges slowly. We improve incrementally. To become more creative, we must work at it consistently and doggedly to improve over time.

Why you need to start now

If it feels daunting to start, remember this other piece of good news: none of us are starting from scratch. No matter where we are on our journey, we all have something to contribute. Doesn’t matter how old we are, what our stories have been, or what we believe about ourselves.

Whether we realise it or not, the creative process always involves our own identities. If you've been on this planet for more than a few years you’re guaranteed to have a unique view on life that nobody else has. This has value - someone out there is going to want to hear what you have to say, or see what you have to offer.

The important thing to remember, though, is that if something takes time to create, we ought to get started as soon as we can.

Often, there is the fear of being too late to the party. Of being ‘past it’.

There's a popular Chinese proverb that says: the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time to plant it is right now.

Ready to start? Do these three things immediately

There's a lot of actions we can take to improve our creativity and grow our creative habits. If you're starting your journey or you're not sure where to begin, there are three key things I would recommend you do to jump-start your creative brain.

1. Improve Your Inputs

If connections are the currency of creativity, it helps if we have more things to connect. It's comforting to stay in our bubbles; we watch the same TV shows, read the same articles and listen to the same music. But it means we run out of inspiration or don't have any at all in the first place.

This is not what we want. We want to create a mess of inputs that jumble together in our heads every day. We can let our brains sort things out when we're off the clock.

The best thing we can do to directly help our creativity is to cast a wider net, seek out new sources of inspiration and look for alternative points of view. Go wide, go different and - if you're feeling up to it - go weird.

This might take the form of reading about an artist we don't know much about, or looking at the work of a photographer we haven't yet seen. It also might take the form of eating something we haven't tried yet. Perhaps even just picking up some ingredients at the grocery store we haven't bought before (or don't even know the name of).

If you're feeling bold, have a coffee with someone whose political views are the opposite of yours. I guarantee it will send you down some interesting avenues of thought and even challenge your own views.

2. Take notes

It doesn't matter whether you're an accountant or an artist, having somewhere to record your ideas and thoughts is really important.

Some of the best ideas we have often don't have somewhere to go yet. Making a habit of writing things down increases our chances of making connections. It increases our chances of connecting our ideas together from different places. It also helps us to connect ideas that we've had at different times.

Julia Cameron talks about the importance of Morning Pages for capturing our thoughts every morning right after we get up. They could just be quick notes dashed off at the end of the day, or on a lunch break.

Here are my recommendations for taking better notes.

Basic notes

You can't go too far wrong with just writing stuff down anywhere you can. Even having a scrap of paper on your bedside table is a good start. Here's what I'd recommend for keeping basic notes at home and on the go.

Moleskine

I've got a stack of full Moleskines that live on a shelf in my bedroom. They contain years of notes and thoughts across my work and personal life. They are great to write in, very portable and just look really nice, too.

Keep (Android)

If you've got an Android phone and/or a google account, you've already got Keep. A super simple place to just jot things as you need to. I use Keep on my phone to take notes when I'm listening to audiobooks.

iPhone users have access to the notes app on their phone. Harder to access online than Keep but still useful if you need to make notes on the move.

Smart Notes

If you want to take your note game a notch higher, consider typing things up into a smarter format. Finding ways to refer to, search and interlink our thoughts is what makes this more valuable than a simple notebook.

Roam

Roam is what I'm using to write this very article. It’s a tool for making connections between different ideas, thoughts and everything else between. Feels daunting at first, but the more you put into it the more valuable it becomes. Currently free to use and in its early days, but will likely go very far (and will cost before too long)

Notion

Like Roam but pitched at teams working on common goals. I haven't tried it myself but I've heard good things (but I've also heard more about people switching out of Notion to go to Roam, too...) Affordable.

DevonThink

For power-users and those on Mac. Favoured tool of Steven Johnson. Suggests links and contextual hints across various entries and has the ability to scan whole documents. Expensive.

Images only (bonus)

Pinterest

If you're anything like me, you love design and photography. Pinterest is great for inspiration and visual prompts. Free to use, but beware of enormous amounts of spammy pins. Not that 'smart' per se, but that's only because machines aren't any good at analysing images (yet).

3. Make something. Then put it into the world.

We’ve expanded our connections. We’re gathering our thoughts. Now, we create.

I would argue, too, that it's just as important to 'show your work'. That is, to put it out into the world to share with other people. This is where creativity truly becomes valuable.

Hiding what we create helps us feel safe but it means we can hide. If you make something and show it to the world, no matter how small, you will more than likely have someone tell you what they think about it. This is either a good opportunity to hear that someone else likes it, or to hear what you need to improve. Either way, you'll be going back to the drawing board sooner than if you kept it in a drawer somewhere. 

And we want to be at the drawing board. That’s the idea.

This does not mean that you have to build a whole website, have an opening night at your local gallery or commit to a presentation at work.

If anything, I would argue that you should do the least possible. Drop a link into a group chat. Write an email to your coworker. Maybe just put something on display in your house.

Putting something out there - even if it's only dipping a pinky in the water - helps us get that feedback loop flowing.

Don’t have anyone you really want to tell? Come tell me instead. I can keep a secret.

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