We’ve all been there. That enchanting, mysterious moment when the muse strikes. Creativity is intoxicating. It’s frenetic. And — not to sound crass — it’s profitable. Unfortunately, creativity is also fickle: the more you chase it, the harder it is to catch.
Art by Sam Woolley.
Nobody feels this tension more than those of us who wear the title “creative professional.” Whatever your artistic bend — designer, writer, musician, developer — the question is this: what do you do when the well runs dry? More to the point: what do you do when your energy, the clock, and your livelihood, are slowing ticking away?
When it comes to creativity, our fundamental problem is that most of us go looking in the wrong places. But don’t feel bad. That misdirection isn’t necessarily your fault. That’s why I’ve put together this list of the seven most common misconceptions we fall victim to and exactly how to harness it.
You’re Too Original
Oh, to be original. There’s something liberating to feel like “the first.”
Unfortunately, with a population of over seven billion worldwide, is it even possible to have had a thought that hasn’t existed before? Probably not. Don’t despair: On the creativity front originality is highly overrated. Our own Adam Pash feels the same:
When you feel like you can’t come up with a truly original idea, it isn’t the end of the world.
More likely, you’re just being honest with yourself.
Embrace what you know, steal what works best, and roll it together with other great ideas to make something that, while not necessarily original, may be new and interesting.
In other words, creativity doesn’t come from what is altogether new or unknown. More often, creativity starts with what you already understand and mixes in a new angle or combines it with a fresh source.
The word combines there is vital. Riffing on the creative genius of both Picasso and “iconic designer Paula Scher,” Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova explains:
Both of these stories captures something we all understand on a deep intuitive level, but our creative egos sort of don’t really want to accept: And that is the idea that creativity is combinatorial, that nothing is entirely original, that everything builds on what came before, and that we create by taking existing pieces of inspiration, knowledge, skill and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and recombining them into incredible new creations.
The point is: don’t start your creative journey on an unmarked map. Start with the people, places, and ideas that inspire you and never be afraid to “steal.”
You’re Too Alone
Being “alone” is another counter-intuitive mistake many of us fall victim too. Often we consider creativity to be a solitary, independent pursuit. We imagine ourselves to be 1965’s Bob Dylan casting off the limelight, sneaking off to a tiny cabin in Woodstock, NY, and emerging with “Like a Rolling Stone” fully formed.
According to filmmaker Kirby Ferguson, the far more common reality is anything but. In truth, we are utterly dependent on one another for just about everything. As Ferguson puts it, “Our creativity comes from without, not from within.” This means building your creative process around collaboration is essential.
Surprisingly, collaboration has been essential even for some of the most notorious loners in history. As Joshua Wolf Shenk told NPR:
One of the most fascinating stories to me is Emily Dickinson, who we think of as totally isolated, alone in her room, refusing to leave her father’s house, which was in fact the case.
But she was enormously enmeshed with people, not through the kind of ordinary give and take that we think of as collaboration — two people sitting in a room — but by writing letters and actually writing her poems to particular people.
She sent hundreds of poems to the people who were critical to her in her life. And the poetry itself was alive with relational passion — it was electric.
And Emily isn’t alone (pun intended). True creative genius rarely comes from “me”; it almost always comes from “we.” Chronicling famous pairings like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Walter Isaacson’s book The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution drives this home:
Most of the innovations of the digital age were done collaboratively. There were a lot of fascinating people involved, some ingenious and a few even geniuses. This is… a narrative of how they collaborated and why their ability to work as teams made them even more creative.
Whatever method you adopt, the next time you’re suffering from an uncreative dry spell, reach out, ask for advice, seek different opinions, and rely on your relationships to get rolling.
You’re Too Distracted
In his TEDxTalk, Nick Skillicorn distinguishes between the two initial stages of creativity, both of which the brain needs to achieve “inspiration.” The first is preparation, which he describes as “absorbing knowledge, experience, insight and context, as well as understanding a specific challenge which requires an idea.” While distractions are key later on, creativity has to start with focus.
To relieve yourself of distractions, a study by Leiden University suggests that meditating on a single problem stimulates creativity via “divergent thinking.” Not only can meditation lower stress levels, practicing mindfulness can also reduce cognitive rigidity: the inability to adapt to new stimuli, problems, or tasks. The goal with both meditation and mindfulness is to create cognitive flexibility, which leads to superflow, or “being in the zone”.
You can’t expect great ideas to materialise at a whim. Creativity takes work and sometimes the best way to be creative is to stare long and hard at exactly what’s blocking you.
Instead of waiting for an idea to magically appear, get disciplined. Carve preparation time into your schedule, immerse yourself in research, do the heavy-lifting, and transcribe your thoughts onto paper. Only after your brain is packed will new ideas begin to flow.
You’re Too Focused
Ironically, our best ideas often come at the strangest times: whether it’s waking up at 3am, being struck in the middle of workout, or finding inspiration in the shower.
Why? Because once you’ve packed your brain with preparation, it will begin working behind-the-scenes to bridge the gap between problems and solutions without you even being aware.
This is what Skillicorn calls the “incubation” stage: the “time required for your mind to form new connections.” Being “too focused” means falling into the trap of trying to force creativity. Instead, embrace “incubation” by embracing distractions.
Researchers at Northwestern University recently concluded that creativity can actually be driven by distraction. They called the results of their study “the first physiological evidence that real-world creativity may be associated with a reduced ability to filter ‘irrelevant’ sensory information.” Darya Zabelina, lead author of the study, explains that “some people are more affected by the daily bombardment of sensory information — or have ‘leakier’ sensory filters”:
“Leaky” sensory gating, the propensity to filter out “irrelevant” sensory information, happens early, and involuntarily, in brain processing and may help people integrate ideas that are outside of the focus of attention, leading to creativity in the real world.
This means that periodically checking out is vital to the creative process. It’s difficult to understate the value of distraction, boredom, and procrastination to creativity, and when you’ve been focusing too long, maybe it’s time to take a break.
You’re Too In Love
Once we latch onto a creative idea, it’s only natural to fall in love with it. While believing in your creative babies is crucial in the early stages of development, this love affair can spell disaster later on. In Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch‘s famous Cambridge lectures, “On the Art of Writing,”he lays down this violent imperative:
Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.
The lesson here is obvious: falling in love with your ideas, defending them, and being unwilling to let them go doesn’t increase creativity, it inhibits it.
[For] a song that’s maybe five to six verses long, I write 20 verses and then I chop, chop, chop, chop. That’s always been the case. I can’t let something go until it’s exhausted, so I have to edit. I’m always editing. I find editing hugely exciting.
Taking something away from something can do extraordinary things, whether it’s music or writing or in a film. In film, it’s extraordinary what happens.
Of course, you can always force a beautiful puzzle piece to fit someplace it doesn’t actually go, and it might make you feel better for a time, but forcing it like that will cause you more work and grief in the end. Instead, set the piece — that is, the idea you love so dearly — aside and either be willing to wait for the right time to use it or execute it altogether.
As my favourite creative writing professor told me in college, “You only know something’s getting really good when you start cutting, and it hurts.”
You’re Too Perfect
For years my wife did crossword puzzles. Actually, “did” is too light of a word. She devoured them. The only reason she got the local paper was because it included The New York Times daily crossword. As embarrassed as she might be for me to tell you this, it actually took her two years of slaving before she completed her first Sunday edition.
What held her back?
Perfectionism. “I would look at these ¾ completed puzzles and get frustrated with myself that I couldn’t ‘figure ’em out’ all at once. I felt like they were something I should just be able to do. I’d start each one with a creative flurry. But each mistake or blank square would stare back at me accusing. It wasn’t until I let go of my own expectations — my own need to do it right and do it perfect — that I finally had a breakthrough.” From that point on, the words flowed.
What’s true for her is equally true for you. Don’t expect to sit down and become the next Steve Jobs, Claude Monet, or Will Shortz. Most of us have to nurture our creativity, utilise our strengths, and learn to work within our weaknesses.
Early on, all of our movies suck.
That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the ﬁrst versions really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing.
Pixar ﬁlms are not good at ﬁrst, and our job is to make them so — to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.”
Forget the old adage, “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” Nonsense. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly, especially if you want to be creative.
You’re Too Aimless
Creativity has a long linage of being reserved for those with /”time and means.” We picture history’s creative greats,especially those with an artistic bend, as light, ethereal creatures, aimless floating through life, untethered to the demands and restrictions the rest of us have to face.
As a result, we imagine creativity itself to be the result of aimless wandering: giving our minds and lives over to the free flow of the universe, or some aphorism like that.
Nonsense. Steve Jobs said it best: “Real artists ship.”
While allowing yourself “incubation” time is essential to the creative process, concrete goals are its overarching lifeblood. Masaaki Hasegawa, author of Yes Progressive – Acceleration in Creativity describes the importance of goals succinctly:
Goals allow you to perceive what you have and what you need, connecting all the dots internally and externally in order to achieve those goals.
If you do not have specific objectives, goals or directions for which you would use your creativity, it would be meaningless to be creative. Whether you are in the field of business, art, politics or sport, you will be creative once you have specific goals.
However, once we disabuse ourselves of the notion that creativity requires aimlessness, the next problem we face is — just as Hasegawa stresses — setting “specific” goals.
So, just to make this as practical as possible, let me end with Harvard Business Review’s interactive four-step tool. Go ahead and start applying the lesson right now. Who knows, you might even be able to end your creative dry spell and get back on track.
Aaron Orendorff is a regular contributor to Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Success, Fast Company and more. By day, he teaches communication and philosophy at the local college. By night, he’s busy “saving the world from bad content” at iconiContent. Connect with him on Twitter or grab his Ultimate Content Creating Checklist here.