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Work Smart

4 Things We Have Wrong About Creativity

Think creativity is all blue walls and blue skies? Nope. It’s more about sitting on an airplane and coming up with a lot of bad ideas.

[Image: Flickr user Jason Pratt]

"Creativity" may not be the first word that comes to mind when you hear the word "conglomerate." But Christian Stadil, CEO and co-owner of Denmark-based Thornico, a sprawling enterprise with holdings in food, technology, shipping, and others, will likely change your mind about that.

Stadil is so enthusiastic about the concept of creativity that he has co-authored a new book with psychology professor Lenne Tanggaard, who teaches at the University of Aalborg in Denmark. In the Shower with Picasso, out in May, looks at creativity in business, the arts, and other areas and explores how we can all become more creative. In doing so, Stadil says the duo discovered that some of the very fundamental beliefs we have about creativity are wrong. Here, he shares four common misconceptions.

Creativity Myth #1: You should think outside the box.

Most creative breakthroughs, including ideas and products, come from well-trod areas within your own expertise, Stadil says. When you want to be more creative, look at what you do already and try to look at "the edge of your existing competent area," he says. Don’t go to an auto show trying to get inspiration for ideas about how your sales team can crack a new market (unless it’s related to automobiles, of course).

That kind of far-flung disconnect isn’t likely to lead to relevant new ideas. Instead, think about how you can stretch the edge of your own competency or what you currently believe is possible, then work toward solutions there. That stretch area is the most fertile ground for creative solutions, he says.

Creativity Myth #2: Big ideas come to you when you are trying to work out the problem

While it may seem like breakthroughs come in a rush and tumble of ideas, true inspiration typically comes when our minds aren’t clogged with extraneous thoughts. That’s why you get your best ideas after you’ve left your desk—when you’re out for a walk or in the shower, he says. You’ve cleared the flotsam and jetsam and have given yourself space for creative solutions to arise. That’s always why it’s tough to be creative on demand—you can’t force it, he says.

Creativity Myth #3: Beautiful settings (and blue walls) inspire creative thoughts.

Yes, it can be inspirational to work in a beautiful place. However, Stadil and Tanggaard found that some of the most common places for inspiration strikes were surprising—including automobiles, airlines, gyms, and showers. But when they analyzed why, they realized these spaces had some aspects in common.

You’re in a confined space with limited demands on your attention. It’s likely you’re somewhat secluded, unless you’re traveling or flying with someone. The white noise of the water, engine, and other ambient sounds provides a buffer against complete silence, which can be distracting. Combined, these factors leave you free to think about new ideas. It’s also why many of us so often find ourselves scrambling to jot down ideas or to-do list items at these inconvenient times.

Creativity Myth #4: You'll have one great idea.

Geniuses produce a lot of crap before they get to the good stuff. Stadil says that one of the duo’s most important findings is that the more someone produces, the greater the chances that something good is coming out. From Edison to Einstein, many of the greatest minds were always busy working on something new. Some ideas were breakthroughs—many were failures, he says. For example, the team’s findings in studying Nobel-prize winners in science were that the winners were nearly twice as productive, writing papers and conducting research, than those who didn’t win. Take that, perfectionism.

"Even Einstein, one of the brightest guys ever, delivered papers where people said, ‘Ah, Einstein, that you have to do it again.’ ‘Einstein, do you really think that is good enough?’ This means that we really have to produce, produce, produce because if we don’t produce enough, the chance for one of the many ideas to be good is not high enough. We have to try and fail, try and fail, try and fail," Stadil says.