This article will discuss the habits and practices employed by some of the most innovative people and companies to increase the likelihood of creative breakthroughs. Human beings are born with tremendous creative energies which seek expression in our daily lives. Creative freedom is our birthright. My aim is for you to know how you can unlock your creative genius by the end of the article.
These are habits which I employ every day to allow my creative energies to flow. They come straight from some of the most creative people I’ve read about. They are easy to implement and are infused with a simple elegance which becomes clear once we include them in our lives.
Read on if you want to learn how to improve your creative ability.
Where Do These Ideas Come From?
I will start off with writing that I am not the one who came up with these creative practices. I merely read a few fantastic books which precisely describe the stories behind the inception of these ideas and their practical application.
What you are going to read in this article is a synthesis of 3 books:
- “Creative Confidence” by Tom and David Kelley, the founders of IDEO, a design and innovation company.
- “Creativity, INC” by Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar.
- “Steal Like An Artist” by Austin Kleon, a writer who draws.
These authors are all great at encouraging creativity!
What follows are super condensed stories about them and their accomplishments. It goes without saying that all of their successes were built with the contribution of countless people which I’m not mentioning here.
Tom and David Kelley
David Kelley, along with Bill Moggridge and Mike Nuttall, started IDEO in 1991 with the mission of applying “human-centered design” to the world’s most complex systemic challenges such as healthcare and education. In 1980, IDEO designed the first mechanical mouse for Apple, to be used with its new computer Lisa. Ever since, IDEO has been pushing the boundaries of human-centered design while sharing the methodology with the world.
The Kelleys wrote “Creative Confidence” based on the experiences they have lived throughout their lives.
Was one of those few people who had a dream as a child and followed through with it throughout his life. Catmull wanted to tell stories using computers. The challenge he faced was that the tools and techniques of digital animation didn’t exist yet! So he set out to invent (some of) them. He is one of the early pioneers in computer graphics. Along the way he met Steve Jobs and together they ran Pixar during its rise to animation eminence.
In his book, Catmull writes that his job as president of Pixar was to remove the barriers which stood in the way of creative success. This not only meant hiring the best people, but also creating a culture which allowed these people to express their creativity freely while simultaneously contributing to Pixar’s mission: making great movies. The success of Pixar’s movies in the box office speaks for itself.
Has written three illustrated books about creativity, as well as a book of poetry composed by blacking out newspaper articles. To my knowledge, “Steal Like An Artist” is currently his most widely known work. The beauty of the book lies in its entertaining simplicity; Kleon distills great wisdom into ten straightforward maxims which anyone can immediately apply to expand their creative output. The book is all illustrated by Kleon himself.
Now we get into the habits and practices to expand your creativity.
I – Stew With A Problem (Creative Confidence)
Acording to Tom and David Kelley in “Creative Confidence, when analytical thinkers are faced with a problem, their first instinct is to step into “problem-solving mode.” The unresolved issue makes them uncomfortable, so they seek to alleviate that discomfort as fast as possible. They seek to solve the problem in an expedited manner.
Tom and David Kelley write that this leads to superficial solutions which don’t take into account the full breadth of the problem.
Rather than immediately working away at the problem, they recommend taking time with it. They write that creative thinkers delve deeply into the problem, they observe it from multiple angles, they study the people who experience the problem and they research as much as they can about it before they start proposing solutions.
I Love This One Because It’s So Counterintuitive
This habit goes against everything we’ve been taught in school. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we must always have the answers for everything, and when we don’t, we should be able to arrive at them as quickly as possible. The information age caters to this affinity for problem-solving mode.
But the reality is that complex problems require deep observation and thinking to be effectively addressed. And that can only be accomplished by stewing with the problem. This means we have to be comfortable with discomfort.
Living with a problem isn’t easy, but it’s the only way to come up with a truly creative solution.
I Have A Personal Example To Share
When I left my graduate program in 2017 my mother (whom I love dearly) immediately started nudging me towards getting a job. She wanted me to start making money so that I could invest in real estate with her. As a mother she wanted the best for me, naturally. But I knew that getting a job wasn’t the answer for me. I knew that if I got a job I would wind up in the same place I was before I left my graduate program: unsatisfied and miserable.
I knew there was an answer somewhere, but I didn’t know where or what it was. So instead of jumping into problem-solving mode (getting a job) I began researching. I researched what interested me through reading. And I researched myself, through meditation. Was it uncomfortable? You bet it was. All around me I perceived signs that I was wasting my life; the pressure to conform was immense.
But I Kept Going
And then, slowly but surely, I began coming up with solutions to my problem (How can I contribute to the world in a meaningful way?), which went deeper than the superficial solution which was readily available to me. When I write “deeper” I mean that the solution met more of the requirements I had when compared to the original, superficial solution of “getting a job.”
And what was the solution? I made my own job! I worked as a private language tutor in Europe for a year.
It was only for a year, but that set me up to experience a small success. I learned that I was capable of providing a reliable service which people would pay for, without having a boss to report to or institutional rules to abide by. This filled me with a confidence I had never before experienced. I began believing I could do it!
This leads us to the second habit.
II – Cultivate Small Wins (Creative Confidence)
Tom and David Kelley write that it’s crucial in the early stages of a creative journey to acquire small wins. They base this wisdom on the technique called “guided mastery” proposed by Albert Bandura, the most cited psychologist alive today.
Bandura used this technique to cure people of their phobias of snakes. First, Bandura would have patients look into a room through a one-way mirror at a person interacting with a snake. Then the snake would be put back into its cage and Bandura would have the patient sit in a chair at varying distances from the cage. The experimenter would gradually increase the interactions with the snake and would help the patient along through each of them. The patient set the pace of progress.
Eventually Patients Would Touch The Snake
At that point they were cured of their phobia.
Guided mastery worked better than any other method tested by Bandura to cure people of their phobias. This speaks to the power of facing our fears. When we face our fears they lose their power over us. Facing the fear doesn’t have to happen all at once, it can be done gradually.
Bandura also noticed that curing the phobia came with positive side effects.
Patients began believing that if they were capable of transcending their lifelong snake phobia they were capable of successfully managing other fear-inducing events. As one subject put it:
“Having successfully eliminated a phobia that had plagued them for most of their lives, a number of subjects reported increased confidence that they could cope effectively with other fear-provoking events. As one subject explained it, ‘My success in gradually overcoming this fear of snakes has contributed to a greater feeling of confidence generally in my abilities to overcome any other problem which may arise. I have more faith in myself.’”
Guided Mastery Can “Cure” Creative Doubt
The previous article talks how being human and being creative are the same thing. If we want to create something in our lives, whatever that may be (a career, a relationship, a state of health) and we are afraid of failing, then we will be best served on our creative journey by starting with small wins. We have to look at the snake from afar before we can touch it.
Small successes can come in any form. Like with me, for example, when I started teaching languages. I had no idea if I would be able to do it or not. So I started with one group of people for one hour, once a week.
During our entire first meeting I was sweaty and nervous. My voice was shaky and I stumbled over my words a bit. But we got through it and we all agreed to continue working together. As we met more and more, not just my confidence, but the entire group’s confidence, grew. People began expressing their opinions and laughing and having fun, all while improving their English skills.
As I realized that teaching languages was something I was capable of doing well, that I enjoyed doing it, and that I could get paid to do it, I began taking more students. At some point I was teaching 5 different groups of people every week.
And It All Started With That One Small Success
It wasn’t a big risk, it was exceedingly small, actually. But taking that small risk allowed me to take the next one and the one after that. In this way I built up my tolerance for risk. Failure was always an option, but even if I failed during a meeting (and I did, many times), this was the price I paid for learning how to succeed. This takes us to the next habit.
III – Be Fearless In The Face Of Failure (Creativity, INC)
In “Creativity, INC”, Ed Catmull writes that failure is the manifestation of learning and exploration. If a person/organization doesn’t ever fail it means they are not exploring the outer boundaries of their capabilities.
Catmull writes flat out that “All Pixar movies suck at first.” That’s difficult to believe, considering that every Pixar movie is a work of art that blends superb animation and storytelling into one final product. So what is the process by which Pixar movies go from suckness to greatness?
Catmull says that all Pixar movies go through an iterative process, in which ideas are flung about, selected, refined, dropped, reselected and rerefined over and over again until they arrive at the final product.
Catmull writes that originality is fragile and it must be protected. This means that all ideas, no matter how crazy or naive, must be given fair consideration.
This Process Leads To Many Failures,
Not all ideas will match with the end-goal of making a great movie. But in order to make something truly original one must be willing to experience many failures.
This fearlessness towards failing is conveyed through Pixar’s corporate culture. Catmull, along with Steve Jobs, knew that in order to get the best ideas it was essential for people to be able to speak their mind freely. This meant doing away with the obstacles which prevented this from happening.
Catmull encouraged people to speak freely by reducing the risk of doing so. Instead of abiding by the typical corporate hierarchy, in which employees become “yes-people”, always agreeing with management’s decisions without speaking up or criticizing them, Catmull nurtured a culture where senior staff’s decisions could be questioned by lower-raking employees. This allowed for the iterative refinement to take place unimpeded.
The embodiment of this “free speech” corporate culture are the daily meetings held by Pixar’s employees wherein they discuss the movies being worked on. Since the risk of failure is reduced, people feel free to relentlessly criticize every aspect of a movie. During the meetings the team literally go frame by frame, discussing and debating every aspect of the movie imaginable. Ideas get tossed out, others get put in. Everything is subject to debate.
The end result is what we have come to expect from every Pixar movie: an authentic story told through cutting-edge technology and dazzling animation. And I’m not even a die-hard Pixar fan, but I can readily appreciate the awesome quality of their movies.
You might be wondering, “But how do I create a culture where failure is embraced as part of the creative process? I don’t have a supervisor like Catmull to create such an atmosphere!” The answer is simple.
Judge Yourself Less
When we judge our creative efforts, positively or negatively, we impose constraints on our self-expression. When we judge, instead of allowing our creative energies to flow unimpeded, we impose on reality our preconditioned models of how something “should” or “shouldn’t” be. Instead of allowing the moment to unfold, being in harmony with what is, we constrain it with our previous experience, and snuff out the novelty of anything seeking to express itself.
Not judging doesn’t mean we should never criticize our work or that of others. It just means that while the generation of ideas is happening, we allow it to happen without judging. Once that’s done we can share it with others, be open to criticism and improve on the work through that iterative process. Remember, originality is fragile, it has to be protected.
Refraining from judgment in the initial stages of the creative process is how we protect originality. Once we’ve made something we can share it with others and have them criticize it, which leads us to…
IV – Do good work and share it with people (Steal Like An Artist)
This is the sixth maxim in the book “Steal Like An Artist” by Austin Kleon. This is a supremely powerful habit which allows a creator to engage in the process of iterative refinement written about by Catmull.
Putting our heart and energy into our creative work is a great thing to do. But what good can come from it if we don’t share our work? If we don’t want to share what we make because our goal is to make something just for us that’s fine. Like a journal, for example.
But if our goal is to create something which can help/entertain others then how can we expect to make any progress if we never share it? Fear is what keeps creators from sharing their work. And like I wrote in a previous post, fear prevents us from growing.
Sharing Work Is A Powerful Experience
When someone shares what they make with the world that person is inviting people into their experience. This is true of any song/painting/book or any other form of art ever created.
Then, after a person has shared in the experience of your work, they will have an opinion of it. It could be positive or negative, you have no control over that. What you can control is whether you take that opinion to heart or not. You can either use it to inform your future work or discard it, because it doesn’t serve you. The choice is up to the creator.
But the only way a creator can have that choice is if they share their work! Sharing work gives us access to more information. It’s a way we can poke life and see what comes out. Sharing work which we have made with love is always a good thing, regardless of what opinions we get in return. It only becomes scary if we tie up our ego with our work.
The ego always wants to be recognized, it wants to be right. The fear a creator experiences from sharing work is created by the ego; it doesn’t want to run the risk of being criticized. So by letting go of the ego, by doing our work egolessly, we are free to create and share as much as we want. Because the only judgment which hurts us is the one we make of ourselves.
Bonus Tip: Steal Like An Artist (Steal Like An Artist)
This one is very self-explanatory. Nothing is original. Every creator received inspiration from another creator. So immerse yourself in the work of others! I love this quote by Jim Jarmusch, an American film director:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
There is a whole planet’s worth of amazing, groundbreaking, mind-blowing, heart-expanding work out and about in the world. Human beings are awesomely creative. Whatever your interests may be, there is something out there made by someone which can “speak directly to your soul.”
The trick is finding it.
In order to find you have to look. And you have to look closely, in detail. You have to take your time in order to be creative. Allow your mind to wander, let it break free from the tethers of conditioned thought and see where it takes you!
These are some of the creative habits which I practice every day. I consider myself a creative person, not because I’m special, but because I have made the choice to be creative. I didn’t appreciate the value of my creativity until a few years ago, when I decided to rely on it to solve the challenges of my life, rather than relying on the preapproved answers I received from the world around me.
Was it uncomfortable? You bet. But it’s only through discomfort that we grow. When we become comfortable with being uncomfortable we begin to open the doors to our untapped potential. This way we can create new things which we never would have imagined possible before.
So what are you going to make today?
To our wealth and success.