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How to be creative

It’s dangerous, brave, to be an individual. Don’t stand out, don’t rock the boat. Our education systems encourage conformity, as do many leisure and entertainment activities.

Yet to be creative is to be human. It is who we are, how we have come to be. The value of a creative individual to society is great, and it’s easy to argue that higher planes of creativity will be valued further still in a future (and indeed a present) where the mundane, the repetitive, becomes ever-more automated.

Let’s get something straight, right now.

Creativity is not restricted to ‘arty’ subjects. Nor is it restriced to ‘good’ – the idea of a nuclear bomb was a pretty creative one.

I’m not talking about paintings, art, poetry. I’m talking about creativity. Creative thinking. Creative action. Creative solutions. A creative world where imagination and forward thinking is encouraged and celebrated.

The most negative societies in history (and, again, in the present) have eschewed – and even fought against – creativity. They embraced conformity.

A freedom to create results in a freedom to live. It is fundamental to human happiness.

I’ve got quite a bit to say about this, so we’ll split it over a few days.

  1. DEVELOP AN OPENNESS TO EXPERIENCE
    Start by taking steps to remove your rigid boundaries, your preconceptions, your mask. Stop dismissing things because you feel you ought to. Allow yourself to encounter new experiences and immerse yourself in the interesting.

A good example of a refusal to be open to experience arrives each year when the Turner Prize is announced.

Typical reactions include:

“Modern art is rubbish” … “What’s wrong with a nice painting?” … “It’s just an unmade bed. I could do that”

Alternatively, you could ask yourself…

“This piece of art has a powerful, albeit negative, effect on me. Why is that?”

You don’t have to like the Turner Prize. You don’t have to enjoy the art. But you can allow yourself to accept it.

Watch a child playing. See how they become engrossed in their own worlds. How they experiment, learn, create.

They might cry occasionally, but they do not judge one another on what they create.

They are open to experience, which allows them to create.

The first step towards becoming creative is to give yourself permission. Go out and do something new.


  1. ACCEPT AMBIGUITY

Eliminate the need for clear, black-and-white solutions to your problems and worries – and opinions.

This links to yesterday’s notes about opening yourself up to experiences. If you have a fixed, unbending mindset of rigidity how will you allow yourself to think freely, how will you allow yourself to create?

Consider how you digest the news. It’s sadly still a very straightforward transaction. You sit in front of the TV, listen to the radio, open the newspaper or read a website and are told information. You’re encouraged to react – normally “that’s terrible” … “that’s sad” … “that’s outrageous” … most people consume far more news than is healthy whilst thinking critically and objectively about it far less than is healthy.

There’s a rant for another day.

It’s easier to surround yourself with unchallenging “yes” people than it is to create ambiguity in your life – this is becoming something of a theme on social media. People create their own bubbles of opinion, follow and interact only with people who make them feel good about their existing opinions and, dare I say it, prejudices.

There’s a balance. If everything you read makes you angry (the tabloids specialise in this), you’re not challenging yourself. Nor are you if you agree with everything you read. Creativity breeds from new experiences, not affirmations of existing positions.

If you allow yourself to receive conflicting information, to accept there are alternative points of view, to empathise with different sides of an argument you will find yourself in a much more creative position.

Whenever you look at a problem from a different angle you will see new ways of solving it – but you have to allow yourself to do so. Put yourself in the shoes of your customer, partner, friend, child, parent… how are they looking at the situation differently to you? Why? What are they experiencing which you are not? How are they reacting differently?

How could YOU react differently?

Allow ambiguity into your life. Don’t feel the need to have a fixed, unchanging opinion on everything, whether it is the food you eat, the people you meet or the business decisions you make.

Being wrong – and dealing with it, accepting it, embracing it – is tomorrow’s subject matter.


  1. (REASONABLY) UNCONDITIONAL SUPPORT

Creative organisations are – with some constratints and exceptions – exciting, productive, positive places to work.

To be creative a person must feel accepted at some level. They must understand that even if their ideas are not used they will at least not be dismissed nor mocked.

The classic example of this is the golden rule for brainstorming sessions – accept all ideas, do not discuss, do not dispute.

Evaluation can be lethal to creativity. Carol Dweck‘s research has shown that even praise can undermine motivation: tell a child they have worked hard to achieve and they will continue to work hard. Tell them they are clever and they will avoid taking risks which might lead to failure.

They focus, in other words, on the praise rather than the ability.

It’s a tricky balance of course – you clearly cannot allow everyone in your company to have unlimited freedom to be creative. Society as we know it simply couldn’t cope: repetition and rote is essential even for small-scale work.

Your reaction to change, to new ideas, is key. We all know of companies where only ideas from a select few are considered. We all know of companies which operate purely from the confines of the boardroom.

The only reason not to at least listen to any idea from any individual is one of pure arrogance. I simply cannot come up with any other reason.

“You’re just a … [lower level job title] … why would I listen to you?”

Three things to keep in mind…

  1. Allow yourself to be creative by allowing yourself the freedom to fail with out consequence of self-criticism
  2. Surround yourself with people who will allow you and support you in your creativity
  3. Encourage others to be creative without judging, evaluating or criticising

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