”When the creative spirit stirs, it animates a style of being: a lifetime filled with the desire to innovate, to explore new ways of doing things, to bring dreams of reality.”
Has this ever happened to you? You’re out for a jog, completely relaxed, your mind a pleasant blank. Then all of a sudden the solution to a problem you’ve been mulling over for weeks pops into your head. You can’t help but wonder why you didn’t think of it before.
In such moments you’ve made contact with the creative spirit, that elusive muse of good—and sometimes great—ideas. Yet it is more than an occasional insight. When the creative spirit stirs, it animates a style of being: a lifetime filled with the desire to innovate, to explore new ways of doing things, to bring dreams of reality.
That flash of inspiration is the final moment of a process marked by distinctive stages—the basic steps in creative problem-solving. The first stage is preparation, when you search out any information that might be relevant. It’s when you let your imagination roam free. Being receptive, being able to listen openly and well, is a crucial skill here.
That’s easier said than done. We are used to our mundane way of thinking about solutions. Psychologists call this “functional fixedness.” We see only the obvious way of looking at a problem—the same comfortable way we always think about it. Another barrier is self-censorship, that inner voice of judgment that confines our creative spirit within the boundaries of what we deem acceptable. It’s the voice that whispers to you, “They’ll think I’m foolish,” or “That will never work.” But we can learn to recognize this voice or judgment and have the courage to discount its destructive advice.
Once you have mulled over all the relevant pieces and pushed your rational mind to the limits, you can let the problem simmer. This is the incubation stage, when you digest all you have gathered. It’s a stage when much of what goes on occurs outside your focused awareness, in the unconscious. As the saying goes, “You sleep on it.”
The unconscious mind is far more suited to creative insight than the conscious mind. Ideas are free to recombine with other ideas in novel patterns and unpredictable associations. It is also the storehouse of everything you know, including things you can’t readily call into awareness. Further, the unconscious speaks to us in ways that go beyond words, including the rich feelings and deep imagery of the senses.
We are more open to insights from the unconscious mind when we are not thinking of anything in particular. That is why daydreams are so useful in the quest for creativity. Anytime you can just daydream and relax is useful in the creative process: a shower, long drives, a quiet walk. For example, Nolan Bushnell, the founder of the Atari company, got the inspiration for what became a best-selling video game while idly flicking sand on a beach.
With luck, immersion and daydreaming lead to illumination, when all of a sudden the answer comes to you as if from nowhere. This is the popular stage—the one that usually gets all the glory and attention, the moment that people sweat and long for, the feeling “This is it!” But the thought alone is still not a creative act. The final stage is translation, when you take your insight and transform it into action; it becomes useful to you and others.
“The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a fad.”
Our lives can be filled with creative moments, whatever we do, as long as we’re flexible and open to new possibilities—willing to push beyond routine. The everyday expression of creativity often takes the form of trying out a new approach to a familiar dilemma. Yet half the world still thinks of creativity as a mysterious quality that the other half has. A good deal of research suggests, however, that everyone is capable of tapping into his or her creative spirit. We don’t just mean getting better ideas; we’re talking about a kind of general awareness that leads to greater enjoyment of your work and the people in your life: a spirit that can improve collaboration and communication with others.
Many of us do not see ourselves as being creative, because we don’t have much of an audience for what we do. In fact, we focus too much on “Big C” creativity—the glamorous achievements of geniuses—and overlook the ways each of us displays flair and imagination in our own lives.
“We’ve become narrow in the way we think about creativity,”
“We tend to think of it as rarefied: artists, musicians, poets. But the cook in her kitchen is showing creativity when she invents a variation on a recipe.”
Believes that what is true about Big C creators holds for the rest of us. “Every person has certain areas in which he or she has a special interest,”It could be the way they teach a lesson or sell something. After a while they get to be as good as anybody.”
There are others, however, for whom simply being good at something is not enough—they feel a need to be creative. “So what they do,”
“It is set small challenges for themselves, like making a meal a little differently from the way they’ve made it until now. This isn’t going to get you into the encyclopedia. You’re not going to change the way cooking will be done in the future. But you’re going beyond the routine and conventional, and it gives you a kind of pleasure that is quite analogous to what the Big C creative individuals get.”
The more you can experience your own originality, the more confidence you get, the greater the probability that you’ll be creative in the future. The idea is to develop the habit of paying attention to your own creativity. Eventually, you will come to place greater trust in it and instinctively turn to it when you are confronted with problems.
The ability to see things in a fresh way is vital to the creative process, and that ability rests on the willingness to question any and all assumptions.
In creative problem-solving, a mistake is an experiment to learn from, valuable information about what to try next. People often pack in their efforts because they are afraid of making mistakes, which can be embarrassing, even humiliating. But if you take no chances and make no mistakes, you fail to learn, let alone do anything unusual or innovative.
Research suggests that creative people make more mistakes than their less imaginative peers. They are less proficient—it’s just that they make more attempts than most others. They spin out more ideas, come up with more possibilities, generate more schemes. They win some; they lose some.
While creativity takes hard work, the work goes more smoothly if you take it lightly. Humor greases the wheels of creativity. When you’re joking around, you’re free to consider any possibility—after all, you’re only kidding. Having fun helps you disarm the inner censor that all too quickly condemns your ideas as ludicrous.
This is why in brainstorming sessions the operative rule is that anything goes and no one is allowed to dismiss an idea as too absurd. People are free to generate as many ideas as they can manage to think of, no matter how wild they seem. In one of those ideas, there is often the seed that can eventually grow into an innovative solution.
Researchers report that when teams of people are working together on a problem, those groups that laugh most readily and most often are more creative and productive than their more dour and decorous counterparts. Joking around makes good sense: Playfulness is itself a creative state.
When creativity is in full fire, people can experience what athletes and performers call the “white moment.” Everything clicks. Your skills are so perfectly suited to the challenge that you seem to blend with it. Everything feels harmonious, unified, and effortless.
That white moment is what psychologists call “flow.” In flow, people are at their peak. Flow can happen in any domain of activity. The one requirement is that your skills so perfectly match the demands of the moment that all self-consciousness disappears. If your skills are not up to the challenge, you experience anxiety; if your skills are too great, you experience boredom.
When skills and challenge match, then flow is most likely to emerge. At that instant, attention is fully focused on the task at hand. One sign of this complete absorption is that time seems to pass much more quickly—or much more slowly. People are so attuned to what they’re doing, they’re oblivious to any distractions.
Neurological studies of people in flow show that the brain expends less energy than when they are wrestling with a problem. One reason seems to be that the parts of the brain most relevant for the task at hand are most active, and those that are irrelevant are relatively quiet. By contrast, when one is in a state of anxiety or confusion, there is no such distinction in activity levels between parts of the brain.
Flow states often occur in sports, especially among the best athletes.”It was almost as though we were playing in slow motion. During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and the next shot would be taken. Even before the other team brought the ball inbounds, I could feel it so keenly that I’d want to shout to my teammates, ‘It’s coming there!’—except that I knew everything would change if I did.”
While in a flow state, people lose all self-consciousness. The Zen idea of no-mind is similar: a state of complete absorption is what one is doing.
“In Zen the word ‘mind’ is also a symbol for the consciousness of the universe itself. In fact, the mind of the individual and the mind of the universe are regarded ultimately as one. So by emptying oneself of one’s smaller, individual mind, and by losing the intense self-consciousness, we are able to tap into this larger, more creative mind.
The idea of merging with the activity at hand, which is basic to flow, is intrinsic to Zen. “It’s taught in Zen that one performs an action so completely that one loses oneself in the doing of it. “A master calligrapher, for example, is working in a no-minded way.”
No-mindedness is not unconsciousness, some kind of vague spaciness. On the contrary, it is a precise awareness during which one is undisturbed by the mind’s usual distracting inner chatter.
No-mindedness means not to have the mind filled with random thoughts like, ‘Does this calligraphy look right? Should that stroke go there or here?’ It’s just doing. Just the stroke.”
In a profound sense, all of our creative acts express who we are at that moment. In the study of people who shaped the 20th century with their creative genius, they shared what seems to have been a childlike freshness in their approach to their work. “I think every person—whether they are a Big C creative individual or a little c—is drawing not just on their knowledge and mastery, but drawing from childhood.”