“The joy is in creating, not maintaining.” —VINCE LOMBARDI, NFL HALL OF FAME COACH
Creativity is pure gold, no matter what you do for a living. Annette Moser-Well man, author of The Five Faces of Genius, asserts, “The most valuable resource you bring to your work and to your firm is your creativity. More than what you get done, more than the role you play, more than your title, more than your ‘output’—it’s your ideas that matter.” Despite the importance of a person’s ability to think with creativity, few people seem to possess the skill in abundance.
If you’re not as creative as you would like to be, you can change your way of thinking. Creative thinking isn’t necessarily original thinking. In fact, I think people mythologize original thought. Most often, creative thinking is a composite of other thoughts discovered along the way. Even the great artists, whom we consider highly original, learned from their masters, modeled their work on that of others, and brought together a host of ideas and styles to create their own work. Study art, and you will see threads that run through the work of all artists and artistic movements, connecting them to other artists who went before them.
CHARACTERISTICS OF CREATIVE THINKERS
Perhaps you’re not even sure what I mean when I ask whether you are a creative thinker. Consider some characteristics that creative thinkers have in common:
Creative Thinkers Value Ideas
Annette Moser-Wellman observes, “Highly creative people are dedicated to ideas. They don’t rely on their talent alone; they rely on their discipline. Their imagination is like a second skin. They know how to manipulate it to its fullest.” Creativity is about having ideas—lots of them. You will have ideas only if you value ideas.
Creative Thinkers Explore Options
I’ve yet to meet a creative thinker who didn’t love options. Exploring a multitude of possibilities helps to stimulate the imagination, and imagination is crucial to creativity. As Albert Einstein put it, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” People who know me well will tell you that I place a very high value on options. Why? Because they provide the key to finding the best answer—not the only answer. Good thinkers come up with the best answers. They create back-up plans that provide them with alternatives. They enjoy freedom that others do not possess. And they will influence and lead others.
Creative Thinkers Embrace Ambiguity
Writer H. L. Mencken said, “It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull.” Creative people don’t feel the need to stamp out uncertainty. They see all kinds of inconsistencies and gaps in life, and they often take delight in exploring those gaps—or in using their imagination to fill them in.
Creative Thinkers Celebrate the Offbeat
Creativity, by its very nature, often explores off of the beaten path and goes against the grain. Diplomat and long-time president of Yale University King-man Brewster said, “There is a correlation between the creative and the screwball. So we must suffer the screwball gladly.” To foster creativity in yourself or others, be willing to tolerate a little oddness.
Creative Thinkers Connect the Unconnected
Because creativity utilizes the ideas of others, there’s great value in being able to connect one idea to another—especially to seemingly unrelated ideas. Graphic designer Tim Hansen says, “Creativity is especially expressed in the ability to make connections, to make associations, to turn things around and express them in a new way.” Creating additional thoughts is like taking a trip in your car. You may know where you are going, but only as you move toward your destination can you see and experience things in a way not possible before you started. Creative thinking works something like this:
THINK _ COLLECT _ CREATE _ CORRECT _ CONNECT
Once you begin to think, you are free to collect. You ask yourself, What material relates to this thought? Once you have the material, you ask, What ideas can make the thought better? That can start to take an idea to the next level. After that, you can correct or refine it by asking, What changes can make these ideas better? Finally, you connect the ideas by positioning them in the right context to make the thought complete and powerful.
Creative Thinkers Don’t Fear Failure
Creativity demands the ability to be unafraid of failure because creativity equals failure. You may be surprised to hear such a statement, but it’s true. Charles Frankel asserts that “anxiety is the essential condition of intellectual and artistic creation.” Creativity requires a willingness to look stupid. It means getting out on a limb—knowing that the limb often breaks! Creative people know these things and still keep searching for new ideas. They just don’t let the ideas that don’t work prevent them from coming up with more ideas that do work.
WHY YOU SHOULD DISCOVER THE JOY OF CREATIVE THINKING
Creativity can improve a person’s quality of life. Here are five specific things creative thinking has the potential to do for you:
1. Creative Thinking Adds Value to Everything
Wouldn’t you enjoy a limitless reservoir of ideas that you could draw upon at any time? That’s what creative thinking gives you. For that reason, no matter what you are currently able to do, creativity can increase your capabilities. Creativity is being able to see what everybody else has seen and think what nobody else has thought so that you can do what nobody else has done. Sometimes creative thinking lies along the lines of invention, where you break new ground. Other times it moves along the lines of innovation, which helps you to do old things in a new way. But either way, it’s seeing the world through sufficiently new eyes so that new solutions appear. That always adds value.
2. Creative Thinking Compounds
Over the years, I’ve found that
Creative Thinking Is Hard Work
Creative Thinking Compounds Given Enough
Time and Focus
Perhaps more than any other kind of thinking, creative thinking builds on itself and increases the creativity of the thinker. Poet Maya Angelou observed, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have. Sadly, too often creativity is smothered rather than nurtured. There has to be a climate in which new ways of thinking, perceiving, questioning are encouraged.” If you cultivate creative thinking in an environment that nurtures creativity, there’s no telling what kind of ideas you can come up with. (I’ll talk more on that later.)
3. Creative Thinking Draws People to You and Your Ideas
Creativity is intelligence having fun. People admire intelligence, and they are always attracted to fun—so the combination is fantastic. If anyone could be said to have fun with his intelligence, it was Leonardo da Vinci. The diversity of his ideas and expertise staggers the mind. He was a painter, architect, sculptor, anatomist, musician, inventor, and engineer. The term Renaissance man was coined because of him. Just as people were drawn to Da Vinci and his ideas during the Renaissance, they are drawn to creative people today. If you cultivate creativity, you will become more attractive to other people, and they will be drawn to you.
4. Creative Thinking Helps You Learn More
Author and creativity expert Ernie Zelinski says, “Creativity is the joy of not knowing it all. The joy of not knowing it all refers to the realization that we seldom if ever have all the answers; we always have the ability to generate more solutions to just about any problem. Being creative is being able to see or imagine a great deal of opportunity to life’s problems. Creativity is having options.” 5 It almost seems too obvious to say, but if you are always actively seeking new ideas, you will learn. Creativity is teachability. It’s seeing more solutions than problems. And the greater the quantity of thoughts, the greater the chance for learning something new.
5. Creative Thinking Challenges the Status Quo
If you desire to improve your world—or even your own situation—then creativity will help you. The status quo and creativity are incompatible. Creativity and innovation always walk hand in hand.
HOW TO DISCOVER THE JOY OF CREATIVE THINKING
At this point you may be saying, “Okay, I’m convinced that creative thinking is important. But how do I find the creativity within me? How do I discover the joy of creative thought?” Here are five ways to do it:
1. Remove Creativity Killers
Economics professor and humor author Stephen Leacock said, “Personally, I would sooner have written Alice in Wonderland than the whole Encyclopedia Britannica.” He valued the warmth of creativity over cold facts. If you do too, then you need to eliminate attitudes that devalue creative thinking. Take a look at the following phrases. They are almost guaranteed to kill creative thinking any time you hear (or think) them:
- I’m Not a Creative Person
- Follow the Rules
- Don’t Ask Questions
- Don’t Be Different
- Stay Within the Lines
- There Is Only One Way
- Don’t Be Foolish
- Be Practical
- Be Serious
- Think of Your Image
- That’s Not Logical
- It’s Not Practical
- It’s Never Been Done
- It Can’t Be Done
- It Didn’t Work for Them
- We Tried That Before
- It’s Too Much Work
- We Can’t Afford to Make a Mistake
- It Will Be Too Hard to Administer
- We Don’t Have the Time
- We Don’t Have the Money
- Yes, But…
- Play Is Frivolous
- Failure Is Final
If you think you have a great idea, don’t let anyone talk you out of it even if it sounds foolish. Don’t let yourself or anyone else subject you to creativity killers. After all, you can’t do something new and exciting if you force yourself to stay in the same old rut. Don’t just work harder at the same old thing. Make a change.
2. Think Creatively by Asking the Right Questions
Creativity is largely a matter of asking the right questions. Management trainer Sir Antony Jay said, “The un-creative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a creative mind to spot wrong questions.” Wrong questions shut down the process of creative thinking. They direct thinkers down the same old path, or they chide them into believing that thinking isn’t necessary at all. To stimulate creative thinking, ask yourself questions such as…
- Why must it be done this way?
- What is the root problem?
- What are the underlying issues?
- What does this remind me of?
- What is the opposite?
- What metaphor or symbol helps to explain it?
- Why is it important?
- What’s the hardest or most expensive way to do it?
- Who has a different perspective on this?
- What happens if we don’t do it at all?
You get the idea—and you can probably come up with better questions yourself. Physicist Tom Hirschfield observed, “If you don’t ask, ‘Why this?’ often enough, somebody will ask, ‘Why you?’” If you want to think creatively, you must ask good questions. You must challenge the process.
3. Develop a Creative Environment
Charlie Brower said, “A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man’s brow.” Negative environments kill thousands of great ideas every minute. A creative environment, on the other hand, becomes like a greenhouse where ideas get seeded, sprout up,and flourish. A creative environment:
- Encourages Creativity: David Hills says, “Studies of creativity suggest that the biggest single variable of whether or not employees will be creative is whether they perceive they have permission.” When innovation and good thinking are openly encouraged and rewarded, then people see that they have permission to be creative.
- Places a High Value on Trust among Team Members and Individuality: Creativity always risks failure. That’s why trust is so important to creative people. In the creative process, trust comes from people working together, from knowing that people on the team have experience launching successful, creative ideas, and from the assurance that creative ideas won’t go to waste, because they will be implemented.
- Embraces Those Who Are Creative: Creative people celebrate the offbeat. How should creative people be treated? I take the advice of Tom Peters: “Weed out the dullards—nurture the nuts!” I do that by spending time with them, which I enjoy anyway. I especially like to pull people into brainstorming sessions. People look forward to an invitation to such meetings because the time will be filled with energy, ideas, and laughter. And the odds are high that a new project, seminar, or business strategy will result. When that happens, they also know a party’s coming!
- Focuses on Innovation, Not Just Invention: Sam Weston, creator of the popular action figure GI Joe, said, “Truly groundbreaking ideas are rare, but you don’t necessarily need one to make a career out of creativity. My definition of creativity is the logical combination of two or more existing elements that result in a new concept. The best way to make a living with your imagination is to develop innovative applications, not imagine completely new concepts.” Creative people say, “Give me a good idea and I’ll give you a better idea!”
- Is Willing to Let People Go Outside the Lines: Most people automatically stay within lines, even if those lines have been arbitrarily drawn or are terribly out of date. Remember, most limitations we face are not imposed on us by others; we place them on ourselves. Lack of creativity often falls into that category. If you want to be more creative, challenge boundaries. Inventor Charles Ket-tering said, “All human development, no matter what form it takes, must be outside the rules; otherwise, we would never have anything new.” A creative environment takes that into account.
- Appreciates the Power of a Dream: A creative environment promotes the freedom of a dream. A creative environment encourages the use of a blank sheet of paper and the question, “If we could draw a picture of what we want to accomplish, what would that look like?” A creative environment allowed Martin Luther King, Jr., to speak with passion and declare to millions, “I have a dream,” not “I have a goal.” Goals may give focus, but dreams give power. Dreams expand the world. That is why James Allen suggested that “dreamers are the saviors of the world.” The more creativity-friendly you can make your environment, the more potential it has to become creative.
4. Spend Time with Other Creative People
What if the place you work has an environment hostile to creativity, and you possess little ability to change it? One possibility is to change jobs. But what if you desire to keep working there despite the negative environment? Your best option is to find a way to spend time with other creative people. Creativity is contagious. Have you ever noticed what happens during a good brainstorming session? One person throws out an idea. Another person uses it as a springboard to discover another idea. Someone else takes it in yet another, even better direction. Then somebody grabs hold of it and takes it to a whole new level. The interplay of ideas can be electric. I have a strong group of creative individuals in my life. I make sure to spend regular time with them. When I leave them, I always feel energized, I’m full of ideas, and I see things differently. They truly are indispensable to my life. It’s a fact that you begin to think like the people you spend a lot of time with. The more time you can spend with creative people engaging in creative activities, the more creative you will become.
5. Get Out of Your Box
Actress Katharine Hepburn remarked, “If you obey all the rules… you will miss all the fun.” While I don’t think it’s necessary to break all the rules (many are in place to protect us), I do think it’s unwise to allow self-imposed limitations to hinder us. Creative thinkers know that they must repeatedly break out of the “box” of their own history and personal limitations in order to experience creative breakthroughs. The most effective way to help yourself get out of the box is to expose yourself to new paradigms. One way you can do that is by traveling to new places. Explore other cultures, countries, and traditions. Find out how people very different from you live and think. Another is to read on new subjects. I’m naturally curious and love to learn, but I still have a tendency to read books only on my favorite subjects, such as leadership. I sometimes have to force myself to read books that broaden my thinking, because I know it’s worth it. If you want to break out of your own box, get into somebody’s else’s. Read broadly.
Many people mistakenly believe that if individuals aren’t born with creativity, they will never be creative. But you can see from the many strategies and examples I’ve given that creativity can be cultivated in the right supportive environment.
Am I working to break out of my “box” of limitations so that I explore ideas and options to experience creative breakthroughs?