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5 Things I’ve Learned About Creativity

2016 July 24
by Greg Satell

I never planned to be a writer. In fact, it was something I actively avoided. As a publishing CEO, I felt it was important to steer clear of the creative process. When business side people start inserting themselves into creative work, it usually leads to trouble. So I focused on supporting other people’s creativity rather than pursuing my own.

But a strange confluence of events led to a blog, which found an audience and led to me becoming a contributor on Forbes and Harvard Business Review. That, in turn, led to an even bigger audience and, more recently, a book deal. So now, I guess I’m a full fledged writer.

I’m one of the last people you’d expect to become a writer. I wasn’t very interested in writing in school and, to be honest, wasn’t particularly good at it when I first started my blog. Yet the truth is that talent is overrated and anyone can learn to be creative over time. So here’s five things that I’ve learned along the way that can help you unlock your own creativity.

1. Let The Muse Know That You’re Serious

One thing I’ve found crucially important is to write everyday. That doesn’t mean I write a lot everyday and it certainly doesn’t mean I write something worthwhile everyday. It just means that I make an effort to write, even when I don’t have any ideas or am short on time.

My friend Jen Hoelzer calls this “letting the muse know you’re serious.” You can’t expect ideas to simply rain down on you. Ideas are hard work. As Fareed Zakaria said of his writing, “When I begin to write, I realize that my ‘thoughts’ are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them.”

I think most people have experienced that kind of feeling. Ideas seem much simpler when they are just a little voice in your head, but when you try to express them, you realize that they aren’t so clear cut. That can be frustrating, but it also gives you a chance to think things through in a more disciplined way.

I’ve often found that even the simple act of opening up my computer to start writing jogs something loose. Not always, but often.

2. Expand Your Database Of Experience

What I lack in natural writing talent I make up for in experiences. Over the years, I have worked in a number of different business and in a variety of different countries and cultures. I also read widely and have worked with some really talented and smart people. That gives me a lot of raw material to work with.

Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire find the same thing in their new book, Wired to Create. “Openness to experience, one of the “Big Five” personality traits, is absolutely essential to creativity,” they write. “Openness to experience comes in many forms, from a love of solving complex problems in math, science and technology to a voracious love of learning, to an inclination to ask big questions and seek a deeper meaning in life.”

So one simple way to improve your creativity is to simply try to get more out of life. Seek out things, people and places that you wouldn’t usually encounter in your ordinary routine. Truly great creativity comes from synthesizing across domains, not just drilling down in one single area.

3. Produce

Many people assume that there is an inverse relationship between quantity and quality and, logically speaking, it would make sense to focus on fewer projects rather than to spread your energy over many. It would seem that would allow you more time to concentrate on the work most likely to make an impact.

However, creativity researchers have consistently found just the opposite. The more work you produce the more likely you are to come up with something truly creative. Part of that is probably just the numbers game. A masterwork is a low probability event, so those who produce more increase their odds.

Yet there is also another factor at work. The more you produce, the more skilled you become and the more you can experiment with different combinations. Those experiments invariably lead you to see more possibilities and try them out. So producing a lot will help you see things that others don’t and increase your ability to pursue new possibilities.

4.Quiet Your Mind

Like most people, I occasionally get writer’s block, which is extremely frustrating. While sometimes, my mind seems to be positively buzzing with ideas, other times I either feel that my brain is stuck in molasses or I’m fixated on something going on in my life and no new ideas seem to be able to work their way in.

In both cases, I’ve found that the best way to get over these difficult periods is to simply relax and quiet my mind. That’s more difficult than it sounds, because writer’s block is maddening! Nevertheless, it’s the only way to get the creative juices going, at least in my experience.

So when you’re stuck on a project, the best thing to do is to put it away and do something else, at least for a few hours. Meet someone unrelated to work for coffee, go to the gym, read a book, see a movie or do whatever will help you take your mind off of what you’re doing. I’ve found that once I stop trying to push ideas, they can start flowing again.

5. Dare To Be Crap

The toughest part of any job is to start. It’s natural to look at past projects—both your own and those of others—in their finished form. So anything you start looks inadequate by comparison. This happens to everybody, even the most successful creators. Pixar founder Ed Catmull, in his memoir Creativity, Inc., wrote, “early on, all of our movies suck.”

In other words, when you start something it’s always crap, which is probably the most frustrating part of the creative process. However, over time, I’ve learned not to let that bother me. In fact, I take pride in it. I dare to be crap, knowing that it really doesn’t matter what my first draft looks like, only the finished product is important.

The truth is that the only problem that can’t be fixed is a blank page. There’s nothing you can do with that except to stare at it. But once you get the “half-baked, incoherent impulses” that Fareed Zakaria complained about down on paper, you can see the problems more clearly.

The truth is that creativity is hard work. There are no silver bullets. The only way to create successfully is to get your ideas out there, find the flaws and get to work fixing them.

– Greg

4 Responses
  1. July 24, 2016

    I’m a writer who never meant to be a graphic designer, but that’s where most of my business has been for the past 12 years even though I’m sure I have excelled at your #5!

    Greg Satell Reply:

    Thanks Phyllis. Glad to hear it’s going well!

    – Greg

  2. Mat permalink
    July 24, 2016

    Enjoyed that, thanks Greg. Especially the writer’s block, which sounded so familiar 🙂

    Greg Satell Reply:

    🙂

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