This post was previously published on the Crew blog.
How many uses can you think of for a paperclip in three minutes?
If you’re average, you’ll probably be able to drum up 10 or perhaps 20 different uses. I came up with 11. The somewhat famous paperclip test was created in 1967 by J.P. Guilford as a measure of divergent thinking. It’s part of a group of assessments known as ‘alternative use tests’ which measure creativity.
The above example shows a common incomplete figure exercise. This test asks users to complete the picture in each window. This is another test of divergent thinking, the more creative you are the more interesting the results tend to be (see below).
Creativity is often viewed as something you either have or you don’t. But that’s not entirely true, according to a study completed by Harvard, creativity is 85% a learned skill. That means we can improve. The question is how?
What exactly is creativity?
It’s hard to put your finger on creativity. In most cases, you just know it when you see it. Maria Popova, the creative genius behind BrainPickings.org, says that creativity is the ability to connect the unconnected–it is the melding of existing knowledge into knew insight about the world around us. This definition seems to hit all of the main components of creativity but we can go a step further.
In The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, authors Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen break creativity into five elements:
This is the practice of connecting the dots between seemingly unrelated ideas. It’s the art of pulling inspiration and insight from one area and applying it to something completely different. Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, believes so passionately in this idea of associating that he made it part of the company DNA. Branson impresses the acronym ABCD for “Always Be Connecting Dots”.
Curiosity is a deeply ingrained tenant in all creative professions. Highly creative and innovative individuals are always asking for the whys and whats, they rarely accept the world as it is. Leonardo Da Vinci believed deeply in the powers of curiosity and its effect on creativity. Amid his most famous sketches and diagrams he wrote: “I roamed the countryside searching for answers to things I did not understand.”
In her book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, Maria Konnikova emphasizes the importance of observing our surroundings on a deeper level. To illustrate the power of observation, she recounts the story of when Holmes asks his partner Watson how many stairs lead from one room of the house to another (a path they’ve both walked thousands of times). When Watson announces he doesn’t know, Holmes replies:
You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.
This isn’t just about expanding your LinkedIn connections or the rolodex of business cards on your desk. Networking involves expanding your bubble to involve individuals and ideas from all walks of life. Creative individuals don’t stick to just their area of expertise. They’re constantly trying new things.
In order to drum up unique ideas, you have to venture outside of your comfort zone and experiment with new ideas and ways of working. Google pioneered a concept of “80/20 time” that allowed engineers to tinker for 20% of their work time. The concept has since spread to other companies like LinkedIn and Apple. These companies understand that creativity doesn’t just happen. It takes work. It’s not enough to just want to be creative, you have to actively pursue it.
Your creativity training plan
Now we know what makes up creativity, but how exactly do you become more creative? We’ve outlined five different practices that will encourage your mind to think outside the box and drum up more ideas than you ever thought possible.
Flex your creative muscle
Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple, learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen. — John Steinbeck
Just like building muscle in the gym, growing your creative muscle takes time and energy. It takes a daily devotion to pushing your mind to think originally. James Altucher has a daily habit that helps him to generate 3,650 unique ideas every year. Every day he sits down and writes 10 ideas on anything from book concepts to business plans.
The act of generating fresh ideas on a daily basis trains your brain to explore the novel and new often. Not only does this foster creativity but it is the best way to keep your brain sharp. When we do something new that releases a signal to the brain that we are learning, and then that releases dopamine into our system. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good and is a key component of the learning process. That reward feedback loop is exceptionally powerful. This excitement and enchanted motivation can help you tap into creative reserves you didn’t even know you had.
Be distracted often
The vast majority of ideas spring into my brain while I’m making dinner at night. There’s something magical about food, good music, and a glass of wine. You probably have a similar idea generator. It might be when you’re out running or while you’re taking a shower–that’s not a coincidence.
When we’re distracted, we’re not thinking about a solution to a particular problem or wondering what our next great article idea could be. According to Shelley H. Carson, author of Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life, this distraction provides the perfect environment for creativity:
A distraction may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution.
Focusing too intently on a problem basically uses up all of your cognitive resources. When you step back and do something mundane or repetitive you lighten your cognitive load which can help you find the solution you were looking for in the first place. You have to give your brain the space to be creative.
Change your environment
You’ve probably never explored the kitchen at a fine dining restaurant nor do you know much about sewer pipes leading from an office into the ocean. But, when you watched the Pixar films Ratatouille and Finding Nemo,those respective scenes still felt authentic. Colette’s cooking tips to Linguini and Nemo’s trip from dentist office to ocean seemed real. That feeling wasn’t created by pure accident.
In order to create these realistic experiences, Pixar directors regularly venture offsite to immerse themselves in the environment they’re trying to construct. For Ratatouille, that meant spending two weeks in France exploring the cuisine. For Finding Nemo, the group took a trip to a San Francisco sewage treatment plant to improve their understanding of drainage systems.
You might not be able to go to France but getting out of your normal environment could be just the thing you need to spark your creative thinking. Research on living abroad demonstrated that immersing yourself in a different culture can make you more creative. Why is that? It could be due to the way the brain must adapt to living in a totally different country. Your brain is forced to make new connections and see things from a different perspective which can enhance creativity.
Most of us can’t just pick up and go live abroad whenever we need to be creative. Thats okay, because you can get similar boosts in creativity from taking some time off of work. When you take a vacation your mind is able to dislodge ideas that have been trapped inside of your head. Again, the brain needs new spaces to explore, it needs new environments in order to expand its view and understanding of the world. Sometimes all it takes is a new zip code to get the creative juices flowing.
Adjust your schedule
I’m typically a morning person, and I’d like to think that I do my best thinking over a cup of coffee before the sun comes up. According to a recent study, we might be better off trying to innovate opposite our circadian rhythm (your internal clock that decides whether you’re a morning person or night owl). The researchers explain:
At off-peak times we are less focused, and may consider a broader range of information. This wider scope gives us access to more alternatives and diverse interpretations, thus fostering innovation and insight.
When you’re working at off-peak times (even when you’re sleepy or drunk), your brain is a bit more disorganized. Rather than the linear thinking pattern you adopt when you’re humming along normally, thoughts scatter across your brain and you think up connections between ideas subconsciously. Research on freestyle rap artists demonstrates that this same altered state of mind helps to turn them into lyrical geniuses in the recording booth.
You don’t have to switch your entire schedule around to force yourself into being a night owl or rising at the crack of dawn. But, occasionally breaking out of your routine might just be the switch you need to set your mind buzzing with a handful of great ideas.
Become a beginner
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few — Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki
If you’ve been practicing your craft for any length of time, you probably wouldn’t consider yourself a beginner. Beginners lack understanding, they don’t know exactly what they’re doing or what they’re truly capable of. This type of mindset, however, may be exactly what you need.
Zen Buddhism refers to this as Shoshin or beginner’s mind. There are a variety of components but the basic gist is that you can benefit from learning to do something completely foreign to you and being open to new activities. This forces you to go back to being a beginner, following directions, not knowing the answer, and occasionally feeling frustrated.
The benefits here are two-fold. For one, beginners tend to be more open to new ideas and exploring alternative avenues for solving a problem. Second, the openness to try new things is a major benefit to creativity. Research has shown that individuals with a wealth of adventures tend to be better divergent thinkers. If you’re not sure where to start, try this simple exercise from Matt Cutts. Just pick something new and try it for 30 days.
It’s important for the body and the mind to continue to challenge yourself on a consistent basis. Not only does it help keep your mind sharp as you age but it unleashes potential you never knew you had.
What appears to be an elusive trait born into famous innovators is actually a muscle that just needs to be flexed to grow stronger. Regardless of how uncreative you think you are, there’s still hope. Anyone is capable of dreaming up the next iPhone or picturing the next Mona Lisa. It just takes work.