How Creativity Works—And How To Harness Its Power

Creative ideas don't just come out of the blue. Creativity is often a process of taking existing ideas and remixing them.

I’m continually trying to create new things, from new blog posts, to books and courses and novels, to new ventures.

And as I create these things, I’ve been watching my creation process, hoping to learn about how it works. For most creators, I think it’s just this Black Box of Creativity, where cool things come out but it’s not clear what you need to put in, or what the hell happens inside the black box. It’s a mystery.

Except it doesn’t have to be.

Creativity is a powerful tool to help anyone, from the parent trying to find new things to inspire his kids, to the small businessperson looking for a new direction, to the writer or artist stuck or feeling uninspired.

So in this post, I’ll briefly explain how creativity works (as I’ve observed it), and then share some tips on how to do it.

How Creativity Works

When you come up with a new idea, where does it come from? Does it just come out of the blue? Are you a genius that has created something from nothing, godlike and mysterious in your ways?

No. It’s not a completely new idea--it’s something new created from one or more old things.

Creativity is the taking of old ideas, and remixing them in new ways that is individual to the creator. The raw materials are out there for anyone to use--look at the ideas all around you, in the online world and in the real world as you walk around each day. There are millions and billions of these ideas, and you can remix them in new ways.

They say there are no new ideas, but the truth is, we can use old ideas in new ways.

Let’s look at a few brief examples:

  • Zen Habits was invented as I studied Zen concepts of mindfulness and presence, along with the ideas of productivity, simplicity, and creating habits. I combined them all in various ways to create my approach to life that I share here, and am still remixing these and other ideas in different ways each year.
  • Zen itself is a remixing of ideas of Chán Buddhism from China with the Japanese culture, and Chán Buddhism is (essentially) a refocusing of the ideas of Buddhism on meditation as the key path to enlightenment. All of these remixing and refocusing of ideas were gradual and evolutionary rather than sudden creations.
  • Twitter was invented by a number of people, each of whom contributed ideas that shaped the social network, but at its base, Twitter remixed the ideas of text messaging with blogging and other existing online social network ideas.

You can see how creativity works--take existing ideas, and remix them, often multiple times in a process of evolution as new ideas come into the mix.

So how do we do it? Well, there’s no one way, but below, I’ll offer some ideas.

How To Do It

What follows are some ideas I’ve found to be important in my experience:

1. Create time for solitude.
In interviewing others, I found that solitude is the No. 1 creative habit of highly creative people. If you’re immersed in online distractions and other busy-ness, you’ll never have the space to consider the ideas you’ve gleaned from elsewhere, or think about how to remix them. So while connection is important (see other steps below), time for solitude is just as critical and often forgotten.

2. Search for interesting ideas.
What are other people doing? Don’t read about the ideas of others so you can compare yourself to them and feel bad, but simply for the cultivation of interesting ideas. They’re all over, in blogs and online magazines, to the people you meet every day who are doing interesting things, to the friends and family you interact with regularly. Read a lot, observe more.

3. Keep an idea file.
As you find interesting ideas, throw them into a text file. You don’t need to ever use them, but just keep notes. You can review this every couple of weeks, and see if anything sparks something for you.

4. Reflect on ideas, apply them to your field.
Are you a novelist? Can you take ideas from your favorite books, like magical realism or suspense devices, and put them into yours somehow? Whatever your field, there are ideas from within your field, and other places, that could possibly be applied to what you’re doing. Take a few moments, maybe in the shower or on your commute or on a daily walk or run, to think about how you might apply these ideas to your projects. Then write them in your idea file--you don’t have to do these new ideas, but if they really excite you, consider it.

5. Iterate on what you’ve come up with.
Remixing a couple of ideas in new ways isn’t the end of the process. You might find new ideas to add to the mix. You might remix the same ideas in new ways. The process continues for as long as you continue to stir the pot, and could get better and better, so don’t give up on your stew.

This post originally appeared on Zen habits, and is reprinted with permission.

[Image: Flickr user Winston Hearn]

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  • Darlene Chrissley

    Creativity is complex. Partly it is just an innate part of the way the brain works - it's what allows us to respond and adapt to a rapidly changing environment and use whatever is in that environment as tools to over come a challenge or pursue an idea (an idea is a function of our imagination, the faculty that allows us to create images in our mind of something that does not yet exist in the physical world see the steps required to make it, or that allows us to see something in our physical world and "see" beyond what it literally is, to what it might be or be used for if adapted). The question then is how we cultivate the imaginative and creative faculties. And that is a mix of enriching our environment with stimuli, getting still enough to allow all the stimuli to fall into new patterns, spending time in the workshop experimenting, practicing, prototyping, and putting our iterations out into the world where they can be used, challenged, improved, and adapted again. What adds to the complexity is the love/hate relationship between the established order and anything new that is proposed. And between conservatives and creatives, risk takers and risk minimizers. Even more challenging is all these polarities exist internally as well as externally, so the creative is often in a state of anxiety - being out on a limb, needing enough ego to assert the value of what they're creating without much evidence to show yet and lots of skeptics nay saying. Therefore the value of ZEN to creatives.

  • Tim Gingrich

    Missed one vital fact: creativity may involve a degree of remixing, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Otherwise known as inspiration.

  • Taylor Grobelny

    The Black Sheep Agency just watched Kirby Ferguson's "Embrace the Remix" TED talk this morning. TIMELY!

  • Jason Thibeault

    I couldn't disagree more. First with the presumption of "how creativity works." If you want to delve into answering that question then do so from a neuroscientific point of view. Second, I disagree because you presume that creativity is rational, that people need to "make sense" of old ideas in order to generate new ideas. I propose that creativity is an entirely irrational state of mind (as opposed to a rational state of mind). There is no "time" to be creative. Creativity is simply a mental process that can be "activated" at any time. Yes, even when you are distracted. In fact, if you talk to really creative people they will tell you that inspiration strikes at the oddest times and that sometimes it's the "noise" that inspires their brain to act creatively. I can't disagree more vehemently with your ideas. You have turned creativity into a "process", a "let's brainstorm for 10 minutes and then come back together to discuss" meeting concept. Creativity is a state of mind. It's a way of living. It's giving into irrational thoughts and letting them percolate over time. Creativity is not about measuring productivity. This kind of thinking sets all the neuroscientific research back 10 years.

  • Mike McGalliard

    I like the simple "remix" explanation that Leo gives for creativity. But given that creativity is really a fresh remix of other ideas, wouldn't it be ironic that solitude is the number one creative trait? I think it's quite the opposite actually. Collective intelligence breeds creativity, and that's happening in spectacular ways with the exponential growth of digital tech.