How to Become Creative

In the Saturday essay in The Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer writes about the creative process. He argues that creativity is not something that is passed in the genes; it is something that requires practice. We can work to become more creative.

This ability to calculate progress is an important part of the creative process. When we don’t feel that we’re getting closer to the answer—we’ve hit the wall, so to speak—we probably need an insight. If there is no feeling of knowing, the most productive thing we can do is forget about work for a while. But when those feelings of knowing are telling us that we’re getting close, we need to keep on struggling.

Of course, both moment-of-insight problems and nose-to-the-grindstone problems assume that we have the answers to the creative problems we’re trying to solve somewhere in our heads. They’re both just a matter of getting those answers out. Another kind of creative problem, though, is when you don’t have the right kind of raw material kicking around in your head. If you’re trying to be more creative, one of the most important things you can do is increase the volume and diversity of the information to which you are exposed.

Steve Jobs famously declared that “creativity is just connecting things.” Although we think of inventors as dreaming up breakthroughs out of thin air, Mr. Jobs was pointing out that even the most far-fetched concepts are usually just new combinations of stuff that already exists. Under Mr. Jobs’s leadership, for instance, Apple didn’t invent MP3 players or tablet computers—the company just made them better, adding design features that were new to the product category.

And it isn’t just Apple. The history of innovation bears out Mr. Jobs’s theory. The Wright Brothers transferred their background as bicycle manufacturers to the invention of the airplane; their first flying craft was, in many respects, just a bicycle with wings. Johannes Gutenberg transformed his knowledge of wine presses into a printing machine capable of mass-producing words. Or look at Google: Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with their famous search algorithm by applying the ranking method used for academic articles (more citations equals more influence) to the sprawl of the Internet.

Don’t miss the bottom of the post which provides ten ways to become more creative, which I summarize below. A lot of these have been tested in an artificial setting (think undergraduates in a lab), so take these with a grain of salt:

1. Surround yourself with the color blue.

2. Do creative things when you’re groggy.

3. Daydream more.

4. Think like a child — imagine what you would do as a five year old.

5. Laugh more.

6. Imagine that you are far away.

7. Keep it generic.  When the verbs are extremely specific, people think in narrow terms. In contrast, the use of more generic verbs—say, “moving” instead of “driving” can help us solve creative problems.

8. Don’t work in a cubicle!

9. See the world. Travel.

10. Move from a small city to a metropolis.

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