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Three unusual ingredients for creativity

Posted on from The School of Life

This is the first of a three part series focusing on creativity...

Creativity is vital to so many professional roles, and is held in high esteem in the modern economy.

That’s because creativity is what allows us to imagine new products, solve difficult problems, and rise above the competition. But it can be easy to feel as though we either are or aren’t creative--which leaves us unable to try something new or improve on our creative work. 

Instead, it is usually more helpful to think of creativity as a skill, one which we can develop over time using key psychological ingredients. These ingredients help us get in the right mindset to practice and improve at creative work. 

There are a few unexpected ingredients that fuel creativity:

1. A bit of thumb twiddling

We tend to think we are supposed to be constantly busy at work. We fill our appointment books with reminders, and make sure to look especially occupied when anyone higher up is around. Many of us feel guilty if we haven’t gotten enough on our to-do list done in a given day. 

But a bit of idleness now and then is crucial for creativity. Or as the philosopher Walter Benjamin says, “boredom is the dreambird that hatches the egg of experience.” 

Spending some time “thumb twiddling” allows our mind to process things in a different way. You may have noticed this if you’ve ever fretted over a problem for a while, then had the solution suddenly come to you in the shower. Studies show that creativity often requires an incubation process. When the mind is allowed time for unconscious processing (or is exposed to a new environment where it begins to make new associations) it comes up with a solution. 

We can add more of this ingredient to our lives by giving ourselves permission to sometimes slow down and take idle breaks. Try taking walks, looking out the window for a few moments, or doodling. 

2. Willingness to “steal” ideas

Our culture deeply values originality. But in fact, in many cases, the best creative ideas haven’t been wholly new. They’ve been stolen from others, and then improved on. 

For example, although some credit Samuel Morse, the inventor of Morse code, with the invention of the telegraph, the history of its invention is more complicated and more interesting. First, in 1753, an anonymous writer in a Scottish magazine suggested that it might be possible to send messages in code with an electric current. Nearly 50 years later, low voltage currents were invented, and experimentation could begin. Over the next 30 years, more than half a dozen people contributed important experiments or improvements, until the telegraph was fully developed. 

Technology has progressed much further today, but lots of important projects are still like the telegraph: they are best developed by a lot of different people, each improving on the work of others. That’s why creativity at work means a willingness to take up an idea someone else has already had. It’s easy to think that we need to create something important starting from scratch--but this kind of thinking may mean that we cut ourselves off from insights others have already had and spend our time re-inventing the wheel, instead of inventing something new. 

There are, of course, times where one truly has to build from the ground up. But it’s worth first considering whether one can fruitfully rework something already in development. In this way, we can view a certain kind of theft not as something shocking or less creative but as a noble, resourceful, enlightened move.

3. Other people

Society loves the myth of the creative genius, often tortured or spurned by others, who manages to create something original and unexpected from scratch. Many of us think of Van Gogh painting Starry Night alone in his room at the asylum, or Nietzsche in his mountain cabin. 

But most creative work these days doesn’t look like this. As technology has led to increasing automation, fewer people are needed for manual or routine labour. This means that increasingly people are needed not for routine work but for creative, strategic thinking. Many of us are now tasked with a kind of creative work that looks very different than a painting or a book: perhaps reducing municipal air pollution, rebranding software for international distribution, or finding new uses for a particular kind of microchip. These kinds of tasks aren’t just mental rather than physical. They also must be done together, as groups combine the technical knowledge of many people and then designing a solution together. 

In short, creative professional work is rarely lone work - especially the biggest challenges. And so creativity means not just coming up with good ideas on your own, but being open to the insights of others. It involves a willingness to combine ideas, try new approaches, and see an end result which isn’t what you originally imagined but may well be the best result. We can access far greater creativity if we recognise that creative work is increasingly something groups do--and often do better than individuals. 

In conclusion...

Creativity isn’t something we simply “have”. It’s a way of thinking we can cultivate if we are able to access the right frame of mind. We can fuel the right mindset with some key, unexpected ingredients: idleness, worrying less about originality, and teamwork. 

By Sophie Johnson

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