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. 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’:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Use this four-step creative process for every project you start:
- Goal: Ask “What do I want to achieve?” (Don’t forget to dream big.)
- Options: “What is the next action I can take, that I think is likely to get me a step nearer my goal?”
- Action: Do it.
- 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:
- Goal Setting: Keep SMART Goals In Front Of You; How to Focus on What Really Matters
- Options Thinking: Michael Michalko’s Creative Thinking Techniques; 20 Creative Thinking Techniques; Free Creative Thinking Tools on the Web.
- Taking Action: The Little Rules of Action
- Review: Critical Thinking Is Not a Creativity Killer; Tips for Giving and Receiving Feedback on Creative Work