There is no secret trick to becoming more creative, but the good news is creativity is a skill you can build.
That means that you can become more creative with the right time and effort. Whenever you are picking up a new skill, though, it is good to find role models who have the abilities you want and to follow their lead.
Over the past 10 years, I have written quite a bit about creativity. Along the way, I have encountered the stories of a number of individuals who have inspired me to think about what it takes to improve my own creative abilities. These individuals have been able to solve problems (both practical and artistic) in new ways. Here are five habits that emerge from their efforts.
A number of people I have talked to have worried that their ability to be creative might be hampered by knowing too much. They feel like having too much knowledge will curse them into sticking with their routines.
Creative individuals delve into the details of the problems they are trying to solve. When Fiona Fairhurst and her design team at Speedo were trying to create a swimsuit that would help swimmers shave seconds off their times, they looked at all kinds of ways to reduce the forces of drag. Their final design drew from many different sources including the structure of shark skin and the use of stretch materials that decreased swimmer’s muscle vibrations.
Similarly, the Swiss engineer George de Mestral noticed that pesky cockleburs would stick to his dog’s fur after going out for a walk. He studied the cockleburs under a microscope and found that they stuck so persistently because tiny hooks on the seed would get caught in the dog’s tangled fur. Using this principle, he had cloth manufacturers create synthetic cocklebur hooks and dog fur and invented Velcro.
The standard image of the creative genius is one of a tortured soul who works in fits of inspiration in between bouts of self-destructive behavior. But, many of the most creative people are much more disciplined than that. They treat their creativity like a job and work at it consistently.
A classic example of this type is the prolific author Stephen King. If ever there was someone whose work would fit the expected output of a tortured soul, it would be King’s. Yet, he has talked often about the role of routines in his work. He writes every morning. As he points out, routines for creativity are just as important as routines for sleeping. You cannot wait for the muse. You have to work hard before it appears.
As a college professor, my least favorite question asked by students is: "Will this be on the exam?" The answer to that question is always: "Yes, but it may not be my exam." That is because you never know what the source of a great idea is going to be. The stories behind creative ideas are fascinating to read, but they are only clear in retrospect.
For example, James Dyson’s inspiration for the bagless vacuum cleaner came from his knowledge of the industrial cyclones used to clear the air in sawmills. When Dyson’s curiosity led him to learn about sawmills, he could not have known that knowledge would form the basis of a multimillion dollar company.
A key to creativity is to pursue knowledge without a sense of whether it will be relevant in the future. Too often, people assume that they can judge in advance what they need to understand and what they do not. Instead, creative people build up their knowledge base so that they will be ready for the opportunities that come later.
Truly successful creative endeavors are products that fit into their time. That means that creative individuals need to understand both the technical aspects of their craft as well as the context in which the work is being done.
Consider the great jazz trumpet player Miles Davis. Davis cut his musical teeth during the bebop era. Bebop was characterized by fast flurries of notes played with technical precision over fast chord changes. He began to react against this style in recordings starting in the late 1940s, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s that the world was ready for the sound that characterized albums like Birth Of The Cool (which was released well after it was recorded) and Kind Of Blue, which had an enormous impact both on listeners and other players.
By the late 1960s, Davis was ready to react against the prevailing context again with his early fusion album Bitches Brew. The key to the success of these works was an understanding of the system in which they were being recorded and heard.
On the technical side of innovation, Steve Jobs was a master at understanding the role of the system. The iPod was not the first MP3 player on the market. Jobs thought deeply about the user and the situation in which the iPod would be used. The attention to the context in which the device would be employed led to the parallel development of iTunes, which made the iPod a true plug-and-play device.
Finally, when you look at stories of creativity, it is easy to be seduced by the persistence of creative people. Not only did James Dyson take inspiration from far-flung sources, but he also spent years working on the prototype of the original Dyson vacuum.
There is a danger in drawing the lesson that creative people stick with every idea in order to see them through. Economists have the concept of a sunk cost. Sunk costs are the time, energy, and money that have already been invested in a project. Good decisions do not allow sunk costs to have an undue impact on choices. Just because you have already spent a lot of time or money on a project does not mean that time will have been wasted if you walk away from the project. Instead, you should evaluate projects by whether they are likely to succeed with continued effort, independent of the investment you have made so far.
Richard Nisbett and his colleagues have studied successful creative individuals (like academics who work at the forefront of their disciplines). The ones who are most successful in the long run are actually those who are willing to walk away from projects that are not succeeding, even when they have already put considerable effort into those projects. That is, creative success means knowing when to throw in the towel and move on to something else.