Do You Worry That You’re ‘Just Not Creative’?

This post is part of the Break Through Your Creative Blocks series.

Break Through Your Creative Blocks!

If you have a creative block you’d like us to address, tell us about it – details in the first article in the series.

If you believe you’re “Just not the creative type”, there’s no point even trying to think or act creatively. You’d just be setting yourself up for failure.

This is one of the biggest and most debilitating creative blocks of all. Fortunately, it’s also one of the easiest to get around, provided you’re prepared to make a shift in your mindset…

These days, we’re forever hearing how vital creativity is to success. In the 21st century creative economy, we have to innovate or die – or at least end up on the scrapheap, like Lou.

Which is wonderful news for creative types like Jack and Marla. But what if you’re just not that kind of person?

You’re not an artist, designer or a mad scientist. You’ve never heard the voice of inspiration in the middle of the night. You’re perfectly happy with a sensible haircut. You don’t hang around in cafes dressed in black, smoking French cigarettes and discussing obscure subtitled movies. You may not even – whisper it – use a MacBook Pro. :-(

Is there any hope for you?

To find out, let’s flip things round and have a look at the kind of people who clearly are creative, to see what makes them special.

So What Makes a Creative Person?

Throughout history, human beings have regarded artists, poets and other creative people as somehow different from and mysterious to the rest of us. There have been several explanations as to the precise nature of the creative ‘X factor’:

Divine Inspiration

Thousands of years ago, it was common knowledge that inspiration came from the gods, and those who were visited by the Muse were revered and/or feared. These days, those who claim divine inspiration are more likely to be ridiculed or referred to a psychiatrist, but it’s a surprisingly persistent idea.

Genius

These days, high-level creators are still revered, but not because of their association with the gods. They are described as geniuses, born with special skills and powers that are denied to the rest of us mere mortals. And if you ain’t a genius, you ain’t going to create anything as special as them.

Madness

Less flattering than the ‘inspiration’ and ‘genius’ theories, this one suggests that creativity is a side-effect (or even a symptom) of mental illness. The implication is that, although it must be nice to be able to write novels and symphonies, no-one in their right mind would want to be creative.

Personality

More down-to-earth than ‘inspiration’, less glamorous than ‘genius’, but more attractive than ‘madness’, this theory suggests that creative individuals can be identified as a particular type of personality. We can all recognise the stereotypical ‘creative person’ – a cross between Vincent Van Gogh and Lord Byron: “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. Or at least a pain in the ass to manage. Researchers have spent a lot of time and effort trying to pin down the specific traits of the ‘creative personality’, but no-one has convincingly demonstrated that most creative people conform to the same personality type.

Talent

When confronted with outstanding creative performance, particularly when it seems to come effortlessly to the creator, it’s tempting to conclude that such achievements are down to an innate talent. As with the other qualities we’ve looked at, talent is something you either have or you don’t. And without it, your creative ambitions are doomed. If you find that a bit discouraging, you may find a glimmer of hope from those authors who suggest that Talent Is Overrated, even if it could take you 10,000 hours of practice to become a world-class performer.

Lateral Thinking

Another popular modern theory suggests that creative people think different to the rest of us. Instead of following the well-trodden furrows of logical thinking, they ‘think outside the box’ and make use of special thinking techniques, which Edward de Bono groups under the heading of lateral thinking. The nice thing about this theory is that – unlike inspiration, genius, madness, personality or talent – it doesn’t boil down to a magical quality that you either have or haven’t got. According to de Bono, lateral thinking is a skill that anyone can learn. On the flipside, as regular readers of Lateral Action will know, some people have dared to suggest that lateral thinking is unnecessary for creativity and thinking outside the box doesn’t work.

Having studied all of these theories of creativity in depth, without finding any of them especially convincing, I’ve arrived at the following definition of a creative person:

A creative person is a person who creates things.

You either create something or you don’t. Period.

No doubt there are plenty of factors that influence things along the way, but it’s hard to say definitively that any of them are the reason why creativity happens. So worrying about them – and whether you have them or not – is a red herring.

And the great thing about this definition is that there’s nothing stopping anyone having a go for themselves, to see if they too can create something extraordinary. Including you.

Forget about ‘Being Creative’ – Start Creating

Forget about who you are (or think you are) and what qualities you may or may not have.

Forget nouns (‘creativity’, ‘creation’, ‘creator’) and adjectives (‘creative’), and focus on verbs (‘create’, ‘creating’). In other words, stop worrying about theories, and start taking action.

And whatever you do, consign the thought “I’m not creative” to the dustbin. It’s meaningless, useless, and doesn’t suit you at all. Take a moment to listen to the Thud! as it lands in the bottom of the bin, and the Clang! as you slam the lid shut on top of it.

You might even like to take five minutes to watch the garbage collectors empty the bin into their truck, and motor off into the distance, on their way to dump it in the landfill of all the limiting and unhelpful beliefs that human beings have no more use for.

What next?

Use this four-step creative process for every project you start:

  1. Goal: Ask “What do I want to achieve?” (Don’t forget to dream big.)
  2. Options: “What is the next action I can take, that I think is likely to get me a step nearer my goal?”
  3. Action: Do it.
  4. Review: Ask: “Have I reached my goal yet?” If the answer is “Yes”, give yourself a pat on the back and start thinking about your next challenge. If the answer is “No”, cycle back to 2. and keep going until you get to ‘yes’.

There you go. It’s not rocket science. You don’t need to make a moonlit sacrifice to the Muse. You don’t need to jump out the bath and run about in your birthday suit. You may even be able to manage without a Moleskine. ;-)

It may not look mysterious or glamorous, but this kind of iterative process is fundamental to the success of all the high-achieving creative people I’ve worked with over the years. In cognitive psychology, this feedback cycle is known as a T.O.T.E. – standing for Test, Operate, Test, Exit.

The T.O.T.E. cycle may look simple, but it’s robust and flexible enough to handle the most complex project. To use it successfully, you need to develop several core skills – all of which can be broken down into separate elements, practised and learned.

Here are the skills you need at each stage, and some resources to help you strengthen them:

  1. Goal Setting: Keep SMART Goals In Front Of You; How to Focus on What Really Matters
  2. Options Thinking: Michael Michalko’s Creative Thinking Techniques; 20 Creative Thinking Techniques; Free Creative Thinking Tools on the Web.
  3. Taking Action: The Little Rules of Action
  4. Review: Critical Thinking Is Not a Creativity Killer; Tips for Giving and Receiving Feedback on Creative Work

What Solutions Can You Think Of?

Have you ever struggled to shake off the feeling that you’re “Not the creative type”? How did you manage it?

What advice can you offer to anyone who has a hard time believing that they are creative?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks and into the creative zone. For a FREE 26-week creative career guide, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

Table of Contents for Break Through Your Creative Blocks

  1. Tell Us Your Creative Blocks – and We’ll Help You Smash Through Them!

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Based on 16 years' experience of coaching creative people like you, Resilience gives you tried-and-tested ways to get past rejection and criticism and succeed on your own terms.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. Mark,

    Awesome article to start off 2010, man. Really.

    I have an analogy that may help.

    I’d say people who see themselves as not creative look at a piece of paper and see a piece of paper.

    Creative people look at a piece of paper and see oragami.

    Look at everything that crosses your life like this and you’ll be surprised at how much creativity you can summon. And remember, folding paper is as boring a task as can be, but that’s what it takes to get your creativity to it’s final, glorious destination.

  2. I think your line sums it all up Mark. Creative people create. I spent years thinking I would like to draw my own cartoons/images to go along with my blog posts. But of course, I can’t draw and so it never happened.

    However last month I decided that my inability to draw could be my strength, not my weakness. My drawings would almost have a child-like aspect to them, which I actually began to embrace and like.

    So now I draw my own images/cartoons to accompany my blog posts.

    I would now add to your line by saying, “Creative people create, by focusing on creative solutions to problems that stop most people in their tracks.”

    Dean

  3. What timing! Since this is #1 it makes me think I am not alone in my thoughts that I would like to be more creative. Finding ways to differentiate and serve potential clients has been on my mind of late. Your article is encouraging! Thanks and I look forward to reading more.

  4. With reference to art/design/making, I’ve had people say to me on more than one occasion, “I wish I were as talented as you are!”

    I just shrug and reply, “We all have our own talents. I make a pie crust you could shingle your roof with.”

    Whoever I’m talking to feels instantly better, as we become co-conspirators in keeping the talent balance in the Universe.

    In my experience, people define “creativity” too narrowly. It’s not just about making a painting or a drawing, and creativity is by no means limited to the pursuit of things artistic.

    When we consider the ingenuity involved in designing, say, a joystick, the field of creativity opens up in a big way.

    I’m not kidding about the pie crust.

  5. This one is v personal to me. I spent many years believing ‘I’m not creative’. I found myself saying that to a group in response to an exercise we were doing on an NLP course. The course leader stopped for a moment, asked me to go inside and find the switch marked ‘creativity’. Once I’d found it, they asked me to switch it to “on”. Which I did. I could feel my brain starting to sizzle with ideas the minute I’d flipped the switch… and never looked back since.

    Limiting beliefs have a *lot* to answer for! But are so liberating once you get shot of them ;-)

  6. I AM FREEEEEE :)

    Creative block occurs due to insecurity, the problem with me six months back, at my previous job was that all the time there was only one particular thought on my mind.
    I was worried my employer might kick me out. He might hire someone better than me and put me at some lower position. He might like the internee better than me and hire him etc etc. Even with my coworkers I had a huge problem, for one reason or the other. (Maybe they were suffering with the same problems :p)
    And at home I was whinier. I actually started hating myself and everyone around me. I was working harder than I ever had in my life.
    The whining combined with fear/insecurity combined with hard work, resulted in the depressed and the blocked creative.
    One day I just stopped thinking, stopped worrying about anything and dumped all my worries in the garbage can placed outside my mind, repeat OUTSIDE MY MIND. With every worried thought I attached one word i.e. WHY. Why was I worried all the time for things that never existed?
    The day I ceased worrying about my work and about myself was the most productive and creative day of my life. From then onwards my life has been (only one word comes into my mind) freeeeeeeeee. That is the most creative element one might possess. FREEDOM. It’s the freedom of mind where you can think, understand and create freely.
    Insecurity is what takes you go down, so AVOID.
    The virus of responsibility was also one more factor. The constant drilling of the line,
    You are the one responsible for this project… bla bla bla…..
    Either makes you work hard or takes you down completely, well, it actually took me down, almost six feet under. Brought me to the point that I actually hated my work and hated the project which I had started with my own hands, in my own way and everything I did was appreciated and acceptable. But at the back of my mind the constant thought and threat of responsibility became a HUGE CREATIVE BLOCK.
    I believe every person suffers from these issues. It is important to ask yourself WHY. Why, is the only word which will help you understand your own mind? Ask yourself all the time WHY. Every person, through their own creative powers must learn how to overpower these creative blocks and bring your mind at the point where it says I M FREEEEEEE .

    • Hi,
      Thanks for your post. If you don’t mind me asking, what did you start creating? I feel I may be on the verge of some creative things coming out of my brain, but I have never had a creative job, nor did I ever think it was possible. I think I may have been missing something all these years.
      Thanks,
      Sandy

  7. Mark,

    I enjoyed this article and found it thorough and intriguing enough to keep on going and clicking on additional links.

    In one of my lives I teach creativity. What I have found is that every person has the genius of creativity within – it is simply different for each individual. Some people don’t believe this so their genius remains dormant until someone cares enough to drag it out of them.

    How much brighter our world would be if each of us had an open to the mind towards the possibility of looking for the creativity in others and in the meantime find their own.

    Heshie Segal

  8. Thanks everyone, some great suggestions here.

    @ Sara “One day I stopped thinking” – if you didn’t see it already, you might enjoy this piece on Why Thinking Is Overrated: http://lateralaction.com/articles/thinking-is-overrated/

  9. I saw this quote recently – thought you might like it!

    “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” Albert Einstein

  10. Barbara Saunders says:

    I agree with the statement, “Creative people create things.” I also think you’ve ignored the white elephant that triggers the discussion in the first place. Yes, there are individuals who use their creative abilities or aspirations as an excuse for their difficult personalities. At the same time, I’d argue that almost all people find unnecessary social b.s. an impediment to getting things done.

    Reporting to work late can be a bad habit. It can also be a reasonable action taken by a person who realizes he gets things done better on a different sleep schedule.

    All the “creativity” and confidence-building workshops in the world won’t change this. You’re right – “non-creative” people aren’t “non-creative” because they lack berets or colorful personalities. Organizations sacrifice creativity – in all types of workers – on the altar of conforming behavior.

    I once read a case study about a new manager who turned around a creative department simply by relaxing rules. People chugging coffee all day long and appearing to nod off were allowed to keep a night owl’s schedule. The office was opened earlier so larks could come in at six and leave at three. People who chatted by the water cooler all day were put in open offices. People who were irritated by cubicle neighbors phones were given private offices. Etc. These variations in optimal work conditions are not unique to “creative” people.

  11. Many people spend many minutes believing that they are not “this” or not “that” and so that’s the way it will be for these people.

    For me, creativity is simply the belief that I can do whatever I want to do.

    I can paint a picture, write a song, make a film, bake a soufflé…

    All I have to do is get up and do it – without burdening myself with whether someone else appreciates my creativity or even understands it (or finds it palatable).

    For anyone who thinks “I am not creative” I say, you have not yet created a thing which brings you pure joy.

    Even a thought is creative.

    Creativity is reveling in being – our unique selves.

  12. @ Kate – Thanks! I promise to acknowledge my source if I use that quotation. ;-)

    @ Barbara – “I’d argue that almost all people find unnecessary social b.s. an impediment to getting things done.” Why do you think I work from home? :-)

    @ Angiel –

    I am the Lizard King! I can do anything!

    Jim Morrison

  13. This is of great help. I struggle with the idea that I may not be a creative and that is an incredible hurdle to jump. I’ve work with different media over the years and have landed in the world of photography. I see my world through the lens and find beauty in the mundane. I think for any artist we seek an audience and approval and accolades from them. That alone can be crippling to the creative process. Create for yourself and you’ll never be disappointed. Love what you do and you’ll be loved for it.

  14. Very interesting article. Especially what Sara@ said is exactly matching to what I am going through right now. Many time I too feel like I am going to get kicked out of the Job soon. The sole reason behind this is I always think that the young folks who join in our group are doing better than I do, which lead me into to depression. Due to this pressure, I try to learn more hard and try to get more things done, which actually never helps.

    It’s almost been more than five months now I having this depressed feeling, which is going worst day by day. I hope this article would lead me to the right way and towards the path of wisdom and would help me to come out of my “current mind block”.

    Thanks once again, for providing such a insightful article!

    Regards,
    Freddy

  15. Love this line: “Forget about being creative; start creating.”

  16. I always know I am creative. It’s just a fear of doing and not having the outcome I want. Today I had clear goals, and I started and finished before Lunch. What I think is important to note is that some of us know we have it in us, but would like some degree of a audience to cater for and to profit from. Only way I can see this working for me is to keep at it, tirelessly and passionately. A great bunch of supportive like minded friends does help. But freelancing from a small pacific country, while my friends are in Africa, makes it more challenging. I really like this post.

    Before when I was working on my artwork, I put a copyright on it. It said Niki Maritz. Copyright. 2001. Perhaps this image was living inside me and was conceived in 2001 and only coming out in 2011. It was just a thought I had at the time.

  17. thnx mark..
    just so you know.. at first the post was really heartbreaking because i know im one of those ‘im not creative’ people.. after a while.. u actually encouraged me.. thnx mark.. i really appreciate it.. i cant draw nor color nor dance but im trying.. im practising real hard now.. ive opened up a deviant account ScarletxChique .. i put almost all of my fail but okay drawings there.. it`ll be nice if you could see them.. thnx again~

  18. Um, still not buying it – 10,000 hours of writing, painting, sculpting, playing the piano etc will not magically make me an artist/writer/what have you. I have no vision, for want of a better word. I am just amazed at the creative talents of people who write amazing books or create art etc etc, and know full well that I could not in a million years come up with anything like it. I can;t even come up with a creative username!

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