This post first appeared on my LinkedIn blog.
Everyone is born creative. Young children don’t question that fact. They just play, draw, imagine, tinker and mess about without hesitation. As we grow up, we lose some of that spontaneity. But we never lose the potential to be creative. We just forget about it.
Society expects us to grow into serious adults doing serious jobs: accountants, plumbers, scientists, nurses, engineers, and so on. From thousands of roles, only few are regarded as creative. And from those, only few are regarded as serious (“What, you want to become a painter? Go get a real job!”). It’s almost as if creativity has become the opposite of seriousness.
Thank heavens the robots are coming for our jobs. Automation will allow us (force us?) to play to our strengths. Creative work being harder to automate, one such strength is our innate creativity. It’s time to revive it.
You are creative – accept it
We can be creative in any job – no matter what. Creativity is not the exclusive domain of art, design or advertising. Who’s to say an accountant can’t be creative? Some tax avoidance schemes look like they will have required a huge amount of creativity. Not that this is a great example, but you get the point. You don’t need to be a Picasso or Bowie to be creative. Art and creativity are very different things.
I often start business workshops by reminding people of their own creativity. It’s an issue of self-confidence, not ability. For example, I might ask everyone to draw a picture. Which immediately draws gasps like: “But I can’t draw!”
Yes you can. What you meant to say was, “I can’t draw like Picasso.” Which is fair enough. Only Picasso could draw like Picasso. And only you can draw like you. That doesn’t mean you can’t draw – it means that, like everyone else, you have your own style.
Take these two pictures of a house, for example. On the left is a drawing done by a child, on the right a drawing by an artist. Now, which one is better?
The artist’s picture is certainly beautiful and well executed, using the right proportions, lighting and perspective. It would be suitable for a property brochure. The child’s drawing is more rudimentary. But it’s also more spontaneous and contains a greater variety of information. Unlike the artist’s impression, the child’s drawing provides some insights on who lives in the house, and what kind of lives they lead. Also, it’s a sketch that can be drawn quickly, and the stylised character makes it easy to read and understand. In other words, it would also be perfect for business workshops.
The point is, both pictures are valid forms of creative expression – they just serve different purposes. Not everybody can draw like an artist, and that’s okay. You don’t need to be an artist to be creative.
Common dictionaries tend to describe creativity in linguistic terms that can be intimidating and unhelpful. They make creativity synonymous with things like imagination, originality, inventiveness, or even artistry. Although technically correct, this type of language won’t encourage people to get over their creative self-doubt.
Then there’s academic definitions of creativity, for example in the context of education. These introduce more useful concepts such as flexibility and resourcefulness, or the idea of using physical activities to stimulate problem solving.
A simpler way of looking at creativity is to take inspiration from pop culture: the ‘remix’. Creativity never starts from scratch. Even the most original people don’t generate their ideas from a blank page – they always take inspiration from something else. It’s the copy–transform–combine model of creativity:
This is the crux. People who don’t regard themselves as creative do so because they put the bar too high for themselves.
Being creative doesn’t mean that you must create something from nothing. Following the old adage “good artists copy, great artists steal”, being creative means that you take something that already exists and then change it, improve it, or add to it so it serves a new purpose. This new thing you have created can then be used by other people to build on as well – and so the cycle continues. This is how things have worked since the dawn of humanity, otherwise we’d still be living in caves.
For me, the key to creativity is having the curiosity to seek out lateral inspiration: stuff from adjacent fields that you can apply in your own setting. Presumably this is how pancakes came into being?
Looking for lateral inspiration
One the simplest ways of finding lateral inspiration is to follow different topics that interest you, and look for overlaps and connections between them.
For example, as a kid I wanted to become an architect. Although this is now a defunct dream, I’m still interested in architecture. So, in this post I’ll use some examples from architecture to illustrate my points. In recent years I asked myself, what could I learn from architects? What architectural principles or practices could I apply in a job unrelated to architecture? As it turns out, quite a lot:
- Think like an architect:examine problems and solutions from every possible angle
- See like an architect:notice the details, and ask why things are the way they are
- Draw like an architect: do quick (ugly!) sketches to explore ideas
- Play like an architect:build physical models to examine options
To illustrate some of these concepts, notice how the architect below took inspiration from nothing more than a crumpled piece of paper for a new building design. He then iterated on this design (on transparent overlays) until he came across something he could work with:
I’ve now incorporated many architectural ways of working into my daily life, and it feels great. This is, for example, how I ended up using LEGO for geoscience workshops or experimenting with toy train sets for information management. These things weren’t invented from scratch; I borrowed, adapted and remixed – just like the architect who started with a crumpled piece of paper.
Also, looking at how architects use physical models in their design process made me come across architects who used LEGO, which in turn made me stumble upon innovation consultants who used LEGO for business workshops. And they, in turn, were using LEGO based on principles borrowed from neuroscience. So now I find myself getting interested in neuroscience… you get the picture.
Learning to see sideways
If all you’d ever known were omelette and pasta, you’d be excited to discover pancakes with the same ingredients. The same might happen if you cross lessons from gardening, fashion or sport with business leadership. If you keep your mind open to making connections between different areas of interest, you’ll eventually find something that clicks.
Lateral inspiration is also about challenging assumptions. Why not use eggs, flour and milk all in one go? Why not use LEGO at work? Why not lead a team like a gardener looks after a garden?
Inspiration doesn’t have to be complicated. As recounted in Disegno, a design magazine, the team behind Lufthansa’s recent cabin revamp simply used a picture of a golden sunset to inspire the type of yellows used for the pillow stripes:
Or sometimes inspiration is right in front of you. In the late 1960s, an architect and a structural engineer were discussing ideas over lunch, struggling to come up with a design for a giant skyscraper that was both stable and stylish. Until suddenly they realised they had the solution right in their pockets: a packet of cigarettes. The result was the Sears Tower in Chicago, made up of individual towers stacked like a bunch of cigarettes:
There are countless instances like this… copy, transform, combine.
All it takes is to train yourself to notice similarities and make connections. The other day, for example, I noticed how Jupiter’s surface, as depicted by the latest spacecraft images, resembles the Starry Night painting by Vincent van Gogh:
I’m not sure if this insight has any use for me right now, but the point is – it’s simply a way of seeing. You’ll find that once you get into the habit of looking sideways, you’ll keep finding opportunities to be creative – to copy, transform or combine existing things for new purposes.
Make it part of your daily routine
We are the product of our habits. To revive your creativity at work, it needs to become part of your daily routine. Here’s some things to get started.
Curate what you read. Don’t just mindlessly scroll through news or social media. Follow specific accounts or websites about multiple topics that interest you. Actively reading stuff that you find interesting is not just a better investment of time, it will also garner your attention in a way that is more likely to generate new insights.
Sit down with a physical paper, magazine or book, especially for longer reads. It’s proven to exercise your mind in different ways from reading stuff on a digital screen. It’s also more enjoyable – perfect for lunch breaks or at weekends, especially with a nice coffee.
Make yourself read stuff you’re not initially interested in. It’s harder work, but the rewards can be even greater. For example, I’m not very interested in cooking but ended up inspired by the story of a renowned chef who created an exquisite meal from an old carrot. The lesson can be applied almost anywhere.
Take every opportunity to visit exhibitions. There is something about the materiality of physical displays that is more inspiring than if you looked at the same things online. The other day I dropped into a Nordic toy exhibition in London and ended up taking away many lessons that could easily be applied to app development or workflow design. I found inspiration in Danish furniture that kids can build themselves without tools (doubling as a giant 3D puzzle) and an Icelandic fishbone model-making kit that challenged my idea of modular blocks needing to be rectangular.
Embrace constraints. The story of the old carrot illustrates a known maxim: it’s easier to be creative when you’re faced with constraints. That’s why the blank page is so terrifying – it’s much easier to start with something. A constraint is one such thing, whether it’s physical, monetary, timebound, or otherwise. Don’t fight it, embrace it.
Reframe the problem. You can also create new ideas by changing the constraints that govern the problem. There’s a great article written by philosopher, Alain de Botton, on finding neighbouring problems and secret needs of customers. These often hide in plain sight and can be found by asking different questions. The effectiveness of problem reframing is also explained really well in this Harvard Business Review article, Are You Solving the Right Problems? Reframing often leads to simple yet creative solutions in the vein of “why didn’t I think of this before?”.
Draw for 2 minutes every day. As we have seen, everyone can draw. It doesn’t matter how you draw or what you draw; having the confidence to draw is an incredibly useful problem solving tool. Just draw something – on the back of an envelope, in a beautiful notebook, whatever. As your confidence builds you’ll soon find yourself drawing to work through real problems and ideas. Drawing (or writing) by hand has been proven to generate better thinking than staring at a computer.
Use the visual alphabet to help you get started with drawing. Based on the copy-transform-combine concept, you can use a standard set of squiggles to literally draw anything:
Keep a notebook of half-baked ideas. Whenever I have an idea I write it down immediately. If I have time I might sketch it out. Whatever the case, the key is in capturing things as soon as possible – otherwise they might be gone forever. Also capture interesting stuff you find online, and keep it with your notes. A collection of half-baked ideas and reference material is a great incubator, and you can refer back to it whenever looking for inspiration. It takes a bit of organisation (I keep my stuff in Evernote, including scans of sketches I do on paper), but it’s worth it. It’s a like having a personal Google search engine, meaning it’s much faster to find when you need it. It’s how I wrote this blog post from many different half-formed strands, for example.
Take a daily walk. Philosophers like Nietzsche and Rousseau used to walk to think, and a recent study showed that walking may indeed lead to creativity. It doesn’t matter when or where you walk, just make it part of your routine. Walking not only fosters creativity, it’s also good for body and soul. I don’t have a dog, but I go for a walk around the block at least twice a day. You can do it anywhere.
Take breaks. This should be self-evident. A fried brain is not a creative brain. Besides, working without breaks is bad for you. Just go for a walk…
Embrace mundane tasks. Cleaning, cooking, ironing, showering… these activities engender mild forms of boredom that will let your mind wander. This can trigger ideas or even a-ha moments. As long as you don’t multitask to distract yourself from these tasks. So, switch off the radio and see what happens. As famous ad man John Hegarty says, “I do my best thinking when I’m not thinking.”
Work with your hands. Our hands are connected to about 80% of our brain cells; using them has been shown to unlock hidden knowledge. This is the principle behind workshop methods like LEGO Serious Play. It doesn’t have to be LEGO, though. You can generate similar effects in other ways, whether it’s gardening, fixing a motorbike, or more mundane tasks (see above).
Create a lifelong kindergarten. As author Mitchel Resnik wrote, kindergarten is becoming more like school when in fact school – and work – should become more like kindergarten. We should all ‘play’ more at work – tinker, experiment, collaborate. If you’re in a position of responsibility, you can do your bit by ensuring your team has the right environment to be creative. It needs to be safe, and allow people to work in a more flexible way that suits them. This can be achieved in several ways, too numerous to mention here. You could simply start with a workshop where you let your team decide for themselves what they want.
Insert tiny doses of creativity everywhere. Rather than ‘schedule time’ for creativity, make it part of the way you operate. Focus on small creative pleasures that you enjoy, like doodling during phone calls, sketching on whiteboards during meetings, or leafing through an inspiring book during breaks. Don’t just make it another item on your to-do list.
Change your environment. They say a change is as good as a rest. A change of scene can certainly be productive. Get away from your desk and break up the routine. Work in the office lobby, a coffee shop, or indeed at home. It’s not about distractions – they’re everywhere, if you let them – but simply being in a different place trigger new thought patterns.
Embrace serendipity. We don’t get new ideas by looking at the same stuff in the same old ways. Go out there, visit different places, talk to different people, watch different programs, read a new magazine, get off the bus at different stops. And once you get bored of your routine, break it. Who knows what you might find.
I hope this post has inspired you to go revive your creativity. Please don’t fall into the trap of believing that creativity is for other people. Accept and embrace the fact that you are creative. Follow the copy-transform-combine model… as I did for this post, which is nothing more than a collection of stuff I’ve collated from elsewhere. All I needed was the curiosity to go and find inspiration. Now go find yours – good luck!
House pictures via Google, sources unknown
Copy-Transform-Combine via brainpickings.org
Pancake Venn chart via Stephen Wildish
Architect sketches via YouTube
Sears Tower, source unknown, via Bing Images
Cigarettes via istockphoto
Planet Jupiter via NASA
The Starry Night by Vicent van Gogh via Wikipedia
Century of the Child exhibition (V&A London), photos by the author