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How to Be More Creative

Master creativity in work and life

Do you want to be more creative?

Increase your creativity by building an idea foundation and practicing mashups.

Why it matters: If you're in any kind of creative profession—whether a "conventional" creative profession such as art or writing, or a career that requires creative thought such as research or software engineering—then you know creativity is crucial for your career. Creativity helps you solve problems in innovative ways; adapt to novel situations and ideas; helps you express yourself; gives you an edge and helps you accomplish more, in unique and interesting ways. Upping your creativity can earn you more money. Plus, being creative is fun.

Dive in: What is creativity? How does it work?

"Creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected." —William Plomer

Creativity is mixing two or more things together in a new way. Creativity is mashups. Brené Brown, in her book Rising Strong, writes that creativity is a way of integrating knowledge and experience into ourselves. It's a way of connecting and synthesizing:

"Creating is the act of paying attention to our experiences and connecting the dots so we can learn more about ourselves and the world around us." —Brené Brown, Rising Strong

In the now-classic book about how to write well, Stephen King came to the same conclusion about the nature of creativity in writing:

"Let's get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere; sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas that come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up." Stephen King, On Writing, p37

How can you be more creative?

You can up your creativity in three ways:

  1. Build a foundation for creative thought.
  2. Pursue creative activities with the right mindset and in the right environment.
  3. Practice bringing ideas together in new ways.

Build your foundation. Because creativity is about mashups, give yourself more base material to mash up. Expand your horizons. Gather up new information; fill your bucket; fill your pockets with facts, stories, and experiences like you're a child discovering seashells at the beach.

Steve Jobs argued that creativity is only possible if you have more experiences, or spend more time thinking about the experiences you've had.

One way I get input is through reading a ton of books, especially since I've mostly been working independently lately. Read books about new things, topics unrelated to your usual work, research, or projects. Read history and science. Read fiction, too. Listen to podcasts and watch documentaries.

(Read more about how I generate good ideas through preparation and practice.)

Develop your mindset and environment. Mitch Resnick, MIT Media Lab professor and author of Lifelong Kindergarten, argues that people are most creative when engaged with passion on projects they choose themselves, with a sense of play (being sincere, not serious), in company with peers. His formulation ties in with self-determination theory: we need intrinsic motivation, autonomy, mastery, and connection to be at our best. (Read more about how motivation works.)

Daniel H. Pink, in his book Drive (read my review), explains that when we are not intrinsically motivated, but instead pursuing extrinsic rewards, our focus narrows. Extrinsic rewards limit the breadth and depth of thinking; they reduce our vision to what's immediate, short-term in front of us, rather than considering the long-term. They concentrate our minds, at the cost of wider-range thinking and creativity.

Pink adds a caveat: rewards can also act like an addictive substance. When you are offered a reward for an activity once, you'll anticipate the rewards every time you undertake the task thereafter. The amount of reward will have to increase to keep being enticing. The physiological processes in the brain that underlie addiction are the same underlying reward anticipation. Anticipation of rewards can activate more risk-taking rather than risk-averse behavior. And risk-taking could be associated with creativity, since you are bringing together ideas that wouldn't typically be together.

(Read: Ideation, Evaluation, and Iteration: How We Plan Our Lives)

Practice being creative. Don't try to be creative—it's not a goal. Instead, play. Explore. Pursue activities you're intrinsically motivated to pursue. When you're not working toward a reward, you'll be in a broader frame of reference, and may be able to pull more disparate ideas together in new ways.

Give yourself space to connect ideas in new ways. Journal, doodle, go on a long walk and just ponder stuff, take a long shower.

(Read: Four Reasons Why Boredom is Better For You Than You Think)

Talk to people, too. They can be both input and sounding board. A fellow Ronin scholar explained to me once that she chooses projects partly based on who she can collaborate with - the other person adds half the mashup. Together, you and someone else can create something new.

Try brainstorming and ideation techniques. The design world has many, and they are all aed at bringing ideas together.

(Read: Brainstorming: Are All Ideas Welcome? Why You Shouldn't Discount Ideas Before They're Explored)

The more time you spend thinking about your ideas, stories, and experiences, the more likely you are to discover new connections. The more I write, the more ideas I have for things to write.

Build your foundation, find the right activities and environment, and practice. Creativity awaits.

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We're Jacqueline and Randy, a blogging duo with backgrounds in tech, robots, art, and writing, now raising our family in northern Idaho.

Our goal is to encourage deliberate choices, individual responsibility, and lifelong curiosity by sharing stories about our adventures in living, loving, and learning.

Learn more about us.


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Curious about our life and journey? Here are some good places to start reading:

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