Several weeks ago, I sent out a #TGIF tweet to PD editors asking if they’re doing anything fun for the weekend. Mary said that she’s doing this and that, and also that she’ll be #writing. I laughed because we’re always writing away, like little squirrels (who have laptops). At some point you really begin to feel like it’s Ground Hog day, and wonder: “Wasn’t I writing just last night? Oh well, guess I should go and write some more.”
It’s very challenging to keep up the pace and the output expected of writing for a living. Sometimes, you really feel sapped of creativity, the ability to put something onto a blank canvas (or computer screen). And this isn’t a problem just limited to people in ‘creative’ fields. In most jobs you are balancing two very different mental processes, analysis and creativity. With analysis, you evaluate the circumstances and draw logical conclusions. If you are in science or finance, you are analyzing all day long to get to the best answer. It’s like an upside-down pyramid, going from a broad range of information and narrowing down to the solution. Creativity on the other hand, is the ability to start from zero (tabla rasa) and build something substantial from that little spark–a right-side-up pyramid, with your idea at the tip. For instance, Peaceful Dumpling was born when I had an idea for the name (my cat’s nickname) and a sense of the world I wanted to create–not because I analyzed hundreds of health and wellness competitors and decided this is the good way to go. (Just imagine how discouraging that might be…hahaha).
Whatever it is you want to accomplish in life, you need *both* analysis and creativity. Einstein himself valued creativity above all: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” On the other hand, the most prolific artists have a rigorous approach that doesn’t just rely on lightening flashes of inspiration.
But the truth is that we are raised to be much more dependent on analysis than creativity. In school, everyone taught me how to analyze, but no one taught me how to be creative, except for just one class–Modern Dance and Choreography, which might explain why this is the single most memorable class I’ve ever taken. Post-graduation, you’re not just called upon to analyze information, you’re also sometimes called upon to invent something that hasn’t existed before. More broadly, when you think of your life as having questions that need answers, you can’t just rely asymmetrically on your power of analysis. Life is often not a multiple choice question, which with careful analysis you solve–but like an open-ended essay. If we are to work to your best abilities and make most fulfilling decisions for your life, we all need more creativity.
So how can we become more creative in our jobs and beyond? Here are some ways that have truly helped with my creativity.
1. Observe everything and take notes.
In order to be consistently creative, you need a lot of material–and for that, you need to be constantly observing. Every conversation, interaction, impression can provide a unique insight, which in turn begs for expression. If you’re already doing this constantly, congratulations–you’re probably bursting with ideas already. If you’re unused to making observations, try honing in on one thing only. Say, observing the shoes of everyone you see that day, the way that they walk, or how the color of light changes throughout the day.
2. Create not just one thing, but a whole world.
“A writer is a world trapped inside a person.” –Victor Hugo
“Had I not created my own world, I surely would have died in other people’s.” –Anais Nin
This might sound counter-intuitive because creating just one thing seems easy, while creating a whole world is so much more laborious. But the most successful artists, designers, and entrepreneurs (like Steve Jobs) all have a vision for a world before they fill it with stories, paintings, or products. In other words, Jobs had a vision for his Apple world before he came up with his iconic products, not vice versa. This means you have to know what you believe in before you sit down to write a single word or draw a single sketch. The more you can see, breathe and feel your world, believe in it, inhabit it, the easier and more natural the creative process will be–and the more other people will understand it, too.
3. See other people’s examples and take what you like.
If you’re a writer, read a lot of books. If you’re a painter, see a lot of paintings. An entrepreneur should find out everything about other successful entrepreneurs. And absolutely *everyone* should be reading the newspaper to find out what’s happening in the world. Don’t be afraid of diluting your originality with other people’s influence; it’s not about ‘copying,’ but about finding your likes and dislikes, and applying that knowledge to your own work.
4. Just put something on the page.
If you have a deafening writer’s block, you might be tempted to not try anything at all. But get over it and just put a bad sentence on the page. Make that a bad paragraph. Eventually, your ideas will get flowing again, and you’ll find your way back through editing. Listen to the words of Van Gogh, “Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility.” Come up with any idea at all and start from there. Your first idea doesn’t have to be the best or the last idea. Just let it take shape.
5. Silence your self-doubt and stay the course.
“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” –Sylvia Plath
“The first draft of anything is shit.” –Ernest Hemingway
In order to create anything you have to get over your fear of failure. Take chances and make mistakes. No one said you needed to be born good at it. Don’t stop yourself wondering, “should I be writing/drawing/making this app? Would other people understand? Am I talented?” If this is how you feel, go back to #2 and sit in your own world for a little while. If you can truly see and live in it, other people will understand it too–just stay consistent and keep producing in the meantime. The secret is in not stopping.
What helps you overcome a creative block? How do you keep your creative juices flowing?