How to Create More by Getting Better at it

The Creative Process

“Don't be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” [Rumi]

If everything has been said and done before, it hasn't been said and done by us. In the same way we bring to life an original combination of the same ingredients and our own spin on them – genetics and environment – what we bring to the process and product of creativity is ours alone.

Time constraints and pressure to deliver are a common issue. We also prefer to have time alone to think and an environment that is more conducive to creativity in addition to tools. And, everything has been done before is the most cited reason by people for not pursuing their ideas further for making them happen. 

Using a creativity lens

The global survey conducted by Adobe in 2012 was designed to identify attitudes and beliefs about creativity and provide insights into the role of creativity in business, education, and society. It found that:

  • 8 in 10 feel that unlocking creativity is critical to economic growth
  • Only 1 in 4 believe they are living up to their own creative potential
  • 75% said they are under growing pressure to be productive rather than creative at work
  • More than half feel creativity is being stifled by the education system – and that feeling rises to 70% in the US
  • Only about half of Americans would describe themselves as creative (global average is even lower at 39%)

There is a  separation between the importance and the day-to-day reality of creativity, a “creativity gap”  exists in companies, and in our lives.

The Creativity Gap

The pressure to perform rather than create could be starting in our childhood for example, education that emphasizes teaching to the test, extra curricular activities that pile on by focusing too much on delivering instant results and too little on enjoyment and play for the longer term. Thus we learn to hate the work instead of falling in love with the joy of creating.

Sample responses on the definition of creativity provide an additional contextual understanding of the role of culture to identity and expectations. In the U.S. where individual contribution is felt strongest it is about being unique, being resourceful is important in Europe, for Japan, it is mastery.

Definitions of Creative

To solve a problem we should first define it properly.

Asking a better question

The real problem may be the word productivity. How do we define it? In all likelihood it is in economic terms ― the rate at which goods or services are produced, especially output per unit of labor. It's a metaphor that is driving the way we think, talk, and do.

More is more, it says, except for when it's not enough.

There are plenty of trend reports that signal how people are more firmly in the better is more camp ― quality of experience, service, and product, in this order, are taking a toll on unimaginative organizations. But that is not all ― less is more, too. Curating, selecting, arranging, packaging are all desirable attributes that make one experience, product, or service preferable to another.

What if we thought of productivity in terms of the quality of being productive?

The next step after redefining the problem is then to connect it with its challenges to formulate a better question ― one that invites a productive response rather than a reaction.

This means connecting the pain felt because of a demand and premium placed on creativity ― i.e. we want better ideas ― with the desire to become more productive ― i.e. we want better ways to go from ideas to action. So that we have a company that delivers better experiences, services, and products from improving our ability to make choices now, and over time.

Asking A More Beautiful Question is the heart of discovery in science, philosophy, medicine ― and a powerful way to renew our personal shelf-life, says Warren Berger. We should become more aware of the power of inquiry and learn to ask the right questions.

According to Dan Rothstein, co-founder of the Right Question Institute, questions not only open up thinking ― they also can direct and focus it:

“People think of questioning as simple, but when done right, it's a very sophisticated, high-level form of thinking.”

Becoming a detective

“Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not. ”
[Pablo Picasso]

Or a scientist working on the experiment of us, if it sounds better.

At a high level, the creative process is thinking plus producing. This means going from why a less than ideal situation is so (opportunity), to what if something else was possible (potential solutions), to how we are going to make it happen (implementation).

We can also use the framework of a classic creative process ― preparation, incubation, illumination, implementation developed by British psychologist Graham Wallas. From idea we can them move through options or potential solutions and then to figuring out how we are going to do it ― doing some contextual inquiry, and examining the part of the problem more closely.

Thinking about what we already know and casting it in a new light to solve a problem differently both highlight the importance of having knowledge to draw from that is varied. Part of the process should be acknowledging what we don't know and finding out who does as well as who can make something.

But we are not done just yet with investigating, coming up with possibilities, and researching the path to how. Because the stuff that happens between thinking about finding an idea worth exploring and actually making it happen causes discomfort.

That is what we run away from ― using some of the reasons why we are not creating as an alibi for not pursuing the questioning, associating, observing, and networking that we need to do to get to experimenting and validating.

What most respondents in the Adobe study said about lacking opportunities, needing encouragement, training, and motivation goes to practice. We are just not used to the feeling of being exposed or the potential risk of vetting an idea creatively because we lack practice.

There are many misconceptions about creativity, the most pervasive is that it's something we wither have or don't.

Creativity is a learned process. We copy, combine, collaborate our way into creativity. When we keep pushing, it is possible to find something that has not been done before.

But it needs pushing and practicing.

Creativity is not pretty

“Creativity takes courage.”
[Henri Matisse]

In Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull describes many fight-or-flight situations at Pixar, and then at Disney ― circumstances when trading imagination for a safe bet were tempting:

Originality is fragile. And in its first moments, it's often far from pretty. This is why I call early mock ups of our films "ugly babies." They are not beautiful miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to be.

In other words, our ideas rarely come out in perfect form. It takes persistence and work to make them that way. And we need to protect those seedlings to help them take form.

If metaphors are driving the way we think, talk, and act, we can use them to our advantage.

In The Creative Habit choreographer Twyla Tharp explains how she develops her work from the spine, which she defines as the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work. From this definition we can use more spine and fewer statements in our work lives. This is the structure we use to draw intention — the audience may infer it or not.

In other words, this is our private tool to answer one key question ― What am I trying to say or show?

About creativity Tharp says:

When I walk into [the studio] I am alone, but I am alone with my body, ambition, ideas, passions, needs, memories, goals, prejudices, distractions, fears.

These ten items are at the heart of who I am. Whatever I am going to create will be a reflection of how these have shaped my life, and how I've learned to channel my experiences into them.

The last two ― distractions and fears ― are the dangerous ones. They're the habitual demons that invade the launch of any project. No one starts a creative endeavor without a certain amount of fear; the key is to learn how to keep free-floating fears from paralyzing you before you've begun. When I feel that sense of dread, I try to make it as specific as possible. Let me tell you my five big fears:

1. People will laugh at me.
2. Someone has done it before.
3. I have nothing to say.
4. I will upset someone I love.
5. Once executed, the idea will never be as good as it is in my mind.


There are mighty demons, but they're hardly unique to me. You probably share some. If I let them, they'll shut down my impulses ('No, you can't do that') and perhaps turn off the spigots of creativity altogether. So I combat my fears with a staring-down ritual, like a boxer looking his opponent right in the eye before a bout.

1. People will laugh at me? Not the people I respect; they haven't yet, and they're not going to start now….

2. Someone has done it before? Honey, it's all been done before. Nothing's original. Not Homer or Shakespeare and certainly not you. Get over yourself.

3. I have nothing to say? An irrelevant fear. We all have something to say.

4. I will upset someone I love? A serious worry that is not easily exorcised or stared down because you never know how loved ones will respond to your creation. The best you can do is remind yourself that you're a good person with good intentions. You're trying to create unity, not discord.

5. Once executed, the idea will never be as good as it is in my mind? Toughen up. Leon Battista Alberti, the 15th century architectural theorist, said, 'Errors accumulate in the sketch and compound in the model.' But better an imperfect dome in Florence than cathedrals in the clouds.

Making time for creativity, understanding that productivity and creativity are not mutually exclusive by defining both properly as processes, engaging in more deep work to become better knowledge workers, and improving our metaphor quotient are some of the ways to overcome our fear.

As Sylvia Plath said, “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

Getting better by mastering skills

“I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking”
[Albert Einstein]

We can learn to become more creative. In The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators Clayton Christensen, Hal Gregersen, and Jeff Dyer outline key behaviors we need to adopt to become more receptive to creative thinking by learning to uncover opportunities:

  1. Associating ― drawing connections between questions, problems, or ideas from unrelated fields. Think of it as connective inquiry.
  2. Questioning ― posing queries that challenge common wisdom. Do we ever question the default?
  3. Observing ― scrutinizing the behavior of customers, suppliers, and competitors to identify new ways of doing things. For example, using contextual inquiry.
  4. Networking ― meeting people with different ideas and perspectives.
  5. Experimenting ― constructing interactive experiences and provoking unorthodox responses to see what insights emerge. This can be as simple as visualizing or story boarding something from observation and gathering feedback.

In the future of work, anything that can be automated will be. But we will still need someone who understands the networked nature of innovation. We should heed the sage advice of those before us, especially when we are all too aware that the future of work is contextual. 

“I criticize by creation, not by finding fault.”
[Marcus Tullius Cicero]


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