A lightning bolt of inspiration strikes your head and — BOOM — an idea of creative technicolor floods your brain, seeping through your bloodstream to your fingertips. It’s the idea you’ve been waiting for — the inspiration, the solution, the next big thing — and it’s worth a million dollars. What’s next — fame? Fortune? A viral and overnight success? All the above? Also, what’s that buzzing sound?
Your eyes open. That buzzing sound is your alarm going off — it’s 6am you have to get ready for work. Feet hit the floor, and as you head towards the kitchen to make breakfast, you silently wish that dream, that lightning strike, would become a reality.
Have you had similar thoughts to this? That you wish creativity would strike at a moment’s notice, like it has with “so many other people”? If so, let me let you in on a little secret.
Despite this Hollywood script, that’s not how creativity works.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa painting as an example. Think creativity struck him overnight? No, quite the contrary.
He worked on the iconic painting for at least four years, but experts believe he probably added to it for over a decade.
The creative mastermind behind the world’s most famous portrait worked and reworked the piece, often taking extended pauses between periods of productivity.
If you can learn anything from da Vinci, it’s that the path to creative stardom takes time. It takes grit. And above all, it is far from linear.
While I can’t teach you how to paint the Mona Lisa, I can tell you about techniques to train your mind to enter creative states more easily. In this article, we’ll take a look at the hidden patterns of creativity and the tactics you can use to maximize your creative output.
What Is Creativity?
Creativity is one of those beautiful, intangible things that comes around when inspiration meets dedication.
One of history’s most iconic innovators, Steve Jobs, believed creativity stems from an interlinked web of thoughts, memories, and experiences. “Creativity,” he once said, “is just connecting things.”
Jobs, who unleashed his creative prowess at both Apple and Pixar, emphasized that creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If you’re wondering how to be creative, take a look inside your own head.
“When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while,” he said. “That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things.”
Whether your goal is to find creative ways to save and invest money, found the next startup, or become a leader in your industry, having creative skills is critical to success.
Developing your creativity muscle is something that can be improved with hard work. Before we jump into how to do just that, it’s important to dispel a myth about creativity
Is Anything Original Anymore?
Creativity is often said to be something that is original. Imagine the frustration of sitting down and trying to draw, paint, or compose something that no one has ever remotely thought of before.
Sounds impossible, right?
That’s because every piece of creative work has been in some way influenced by what came before it.
In his viral YouTube video, Everything is a Remix, filmmaker Kirby Ferguson deconstructs famous works to see how they have borrowed and blended material and concepts that came before.
According to Ferguson, automobile magnate Henry Ford didn’t invent either the assembly line or interchangeable parts, both of which were key components in his success manufacturing cars. Ford simply stuck several ideas together in order to mass-produce the Model T.
Likewise, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson retyped the entire Great Gatsby to get a sense of the writing before writing his own American classics. He used F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing style as inspiration for his later works.
It’s important to recognize that our creative outputs will always be influenced (not stolen) by what we have seen and experienced. It’s nearly impossible to fabricate something truly from scratch — take a minute to test my hypothesis — and the pressure to do so has killed countless would-be songs, technologies, and books.
Instead of focusing on originality, try to produce something that resonates specifically with yourself. We each have completely unique experiences to draw from. That’s what makes you different. That’s what makes your idea different.
Realizing this can help you create freely without feeling like you need to reinvent the wheel.
How To Be Creative: The 5 Step Process
So how can you be creative? Like I said earlier — it’s not so much of a lightning bolt. Instead, it’s a step by step process.
- Prep your environment, mind, and body
Next, I’ll break down each point and provide actionable ways to enhance your creativity.
#1 Prep Your Environment, Mind, and Body
Take Care of Your Body
Humans function at their best when their bodies are happy and healthy. So how can you maintain your body for optimal creative performance?
If you do anything while you’re not feeling well or stressed, the results will likely be not what you’re aiming for. It’s the same with creativity — a well rested mind is a prerequisite for creativity.
Walk It Out
What do Aristotle, Thoreau, and Beethoven have in common?
Besides being some of the most revered creatives in history, they all loved to walk.
The cognitive benefits of walking can certainly be felt, and were recently proved by a Stanford study. According to the research, going for walks can boost creative output by up to 60%.
Believe it or not, procrastinating moderately is actually helpful to creativity.
In his TED talk on creativity, author Adam Grant discussed a study that found that moderate procrastinators were 16% more creative than other groups.
According to Grant, “procrastination gives you time to consider divergent ideas, to think in nonlinear ways, to make unexpected leaps.”
Time to… do it tomorrow?
Here’s some good news for those looking to learn how to be creative. You can build it up over time.
Contrary to public belief, people aren’t usually born creative and don’t inherit the creativity gene. According to the author of The Big Book of Creativity Games, Robert Epstein, there's not actually any evidence that one person is inherently more creative than another.
It just takes practice.
Practice, Practice, Practice
If you want to get better at painting, paint.
If your goal is to improve rapid ideation, take an improv class.
Carve out a regular time in your day or week to spend time improving the skills you want to get better at.
Do creative exercises
The best ways to improve creativity are actually to increase parameters in creative exercises.
Restrict yourself by time or quantity and force yourself to stay within the boundaries.
Possible exercises include:
- Seeing how many drawings you can make in 30 seconds. Practice over time and see if your number improves. If you want to go even further, narrow in by topic. How many drawings of fruit can you make in 30 seconds?
- Flash fiction: write a story in 100 words or less. Challenge yourself to write these in 5 minutes and work your way down to 2.
- Create a list of business and product ideas. Score yourself on your ideas’ viability and aim to improve your score over time.
Diversify your inputs
One of the secrets to creativity is inspiration.
The truth is that you won’t be inspired if you see the same places and people day after day.
Take a trip to a part of the city you haven’t seen before. Visit a science museum. Have coffee with someone who is passionate about something you know nothing about. And consider all of this work towards your creative goal.
Adding a variety of content into your daily diet will help you form new neural pathways and boost your creative output.
Stand Out From The Crowd
Creativity comes into play anytime there isn’t a guidebook of what to do in a situation. Building up creative skills is incredibly useful because it allows you to be adaptable.
Albert Einstein famously said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
Knowing that, should your business do exactly what your competitors are doing? Probably not.
Take a page out of Tesla’s book. When it comes to ads, Tesla is undoubtedly the black sheep of the business. The automotive industry as a whole spends over $35 billion on advertising per year. That’s billion with a B.
Tesla, in contrast, has a paid advertising budget of exactly $0. Seeing as the company is now one of the hottest names in the business, their choice to wear blue to the yellow party hasn’t inhibited their success; in fact, the word-of-mouth and free advertising models they have adopted might be a reason behind it.
Sometimes, the best way how to be creative is simply to stand out.
Each year, Johns Hopkins University releases a few of their favorite admissions application essays. This year, one of the selections was written by a high school senior named Madison who used her allotted character space to write about, of all things, her love of potatoes.
The essay was relatable, funny, and most of all, unexpected. While her peers were busy detailing their summers at Spanish camp and their dreams of being astronauts, Madison discussed her affinity for hash browns and latkes.
By creatively choosing a topic no one else would pick, she took a leap of faith — and it paid off.
If you aspire to achieve what most people don’t, you must zig when others zag. A dose of creativity puts you on the fast track to get there.
Instead of letting failure deter you, use it as a tool.
Failure As a Tool
The only true way to learn how to be creative is to create some truly terrible work. Fail early and often.
When he was famously asked about the results of his his 9,000 failed experiments, Thomas Edison replied, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.”
If you’re now reading this with the convenience of electric lights, you can thank Edison for never giving up on experimenting.
Creativity is fraught with failure. Before googling “How to be Creative”, you’re better off searching “How to Fail.”
Before you produce something great, rest assured, you will experience setbacks along the way.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 50% of businesses fail within the first five years. Why, then, does anyone attempt multiple business launches?
Because the rewards for success are so high and, counterintuitively, because the entrepreneurs’ chances of creating a successful company increase with each failure. If they don’t fit into Einstein’s definition of insanity, the future founders harvest the lessons from each crash and use them as valuable insight in their next endeavors.
Ever heard of Odeo, SocialNet, or FunBug? Likely not — these are the sunk companies from the founders of Twitter, LinkedIn, and GoPro, respectively.
In the venture capital world of Silicon Valley, for example, young entrepreneurs often aren’t even taken seriously until they’ve tanked a company or two. Failure is almost expected.
This kind of culture has allowed people to experiment, take risks, and work through setbacks. As a result, innovative companies bloom in the Valley like dandelions in July.
Smart founders learn from their mistakes and don’t repeat them with each company iteration. By using failure as a tool for growth and reframing it as a productive and necessary step to success, your setbacks can actually be rocket fool for creative output.
You’ve prepped your environment, mind and body. You’ve created, failed. What’s next? Create again with a renewed vigor — what’s known as flow.
Go With The Flow
Though it can be elusive, flow state is like a steroid injection to your creativity muscle.
If you’ve ever focused so hard on something that external distractions melt away and you feel a vibrant energy channeling into the task at hand, you’ve had a taste of flow.
Athletes often report feeling it when they’re pushing their abilities to the max — but it can also be achieved by working on math problems or creating music.
Flow is the pinnacle of creativity, and the results are more than skin-deep. Being in a state of flow suppresses stress-causing hormones and actually triggers neurochemicals that boost the immune system. Many people experience a feeling of excitement or bliss and produce their best work while flowing.
The great thing about flow is that you can train your body to enter into it. The most important part is that your concentration must remain unbroken. If you want to enter the flow zone, switch off your phone, pop on noise-cancelling headphones, and zero in on the task at hand.
Stress is flow’s Kryptonite. It will kill your creativity faster than Lysol on 99.9% of germs.
To get into flow state, empty your mind of worry, chatter, and making plans. If this proves to be a challenge, tools like meditation and journaling are helpful practices to practice clearing your mind.
Focus in on one specific task. Whether your aim is to surf the perfect wave or type out a crucial piece of code, your brain should only be focused on a singular goal. Ideally, the task should be something that makes you feel energized.
Sink into it. Allow your creative mind to take over and work its magic. Flowing should be a fulfilling, enjoyable experience.
According to the scientist who first identified flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “One of the most frequently mentioned dimensions of the flow experience is that, while it lasts, one is able to forget all the unpleasant aspects of life.”
Flow state is the marriage of focus and creativity. The more you practice, the easier it gets.
Like any success story, it’s repetition that makes the difference. Never giving up. Continuously refining your craft.
To learn how to be creative, you must accept that the journey is a nonlinear path. Creativity comes in waves, and sometimes the peaks and troughs are unevenly spaced apart.
The trick to maximizing your output is preparing yourself mentally to ride the waves without losing your balance and wiping out.
Sometimes, inspiration comes in a massive burst. Jack Kerouac wrote his American Beat classic, On the Road, in just three weeks, typing almost nonstop. He allegedly sweated so profusely tapping away on his typewriter that he had to change shirts several times a day.
While it would be nice to just wait around for your three-week creative explosion to occur, the important thing to note is that, in reality, Kerouac essentially spent over a decade working on the timeless book.
During that time, he wrote and rewrote drafts, took years-long pauses to clear his mind, and tinkered with the story until his pièce de résistance was complete. The three-week marathon was merely the culmination of everything that came before.
So can you sit and wait for inspiration to suddenly strike? Maybe, but the only way to polish the stone is to show up and do the work.
How To Be Creative
The world has a million and one problems and opportunities that require creative thinkers, and the next Jobs, Edison, and Kerouac are already hard at work honing their creativity and rising through the ranks.
How can you join them? Prepare, create, fail, create and never stop repeating.
Alyssa is an intrepid world traveler and writer who likes both her food and words to be extra spicy.